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."
Akoli, who goes by the nickname Ben, is a hospital corpsman 2nd class aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier.
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 and the dispensing of gifts and advice.
The gathered are told that naming a child comes with responsibility and must be done with caution. Children tend to follow the characteristics of those for whom they have been named.
Two clear liquids are placed on a table in front of the room. One is water; the other is not. The liquids will both be spoon fed to the infant as a sort of truth serum, to teach him that "in this world, things are not always what they seem."
At the moment of truth, Ben stands and speaks.
"Though I have the authority to name my baby, I have to consult with my wife," he said, bringing chuckles from the audience. "So what we have decided ... his first name is going to be Aviad — A-V-I-A-D — as you can see from here. His middle name is going to be Johan."
Aviad is a name the prophet Isaiah gave to Jesus. Johan is a Hebrew name for "gift from God."
For the continuity of the Akoli family, the baby would have his last name, Ben said.
"So the name I've chosen for this baby, frien
ds, is Aviad Johan Akoli."
But there is more.
This is Aviad's official name, the title that will go on his birth certificate, but the naming is far from done. Aviad will now receive his "soul name," one of which will be based on the day he was born. Since Aviad was born on a Monday, Ben's family — who is from the Ashanti tribe — will call him Kwadwo; Adwoa's family, from the Fante tribe, will call him Joojo.
Aviad will have a second soul name: Awudor, the last name of his grandfather and Ben's father.
John Awudor did not bestow his last name on any of his three sons, being a man who scoffed at self-gratification, Ben explains later. He preferred to honor others who had positively affected his life.
Ben noted that his father was born in 1941, when Ghana was still a British colony. After its independence, the Nkrumah government established close ties to Russia and planned to send his father to study engineering there. But Nkrumah was overthrown.
"All his dreams, ambitions and everything were shattered," Akoli said. But his father found purpose in his three sons, declining to take on other wives and children as was common in Ghana at the time.
"If we, his children, feel like he led a good life and he deserved to be honored, then we shall honor him. So today, I thank God that I have the opportunity to honor him by giving my son his name."
After Akoli has named his son, Wright, the elder, receives Aviad into his lap.
In the olden days, he says of the infant, he would have placed a machete on the infant, "So you know that when you grow up, you have to go into the farm," Wright says, according to Bediako's translation.
"But in this generation, what is important is you learn hard, become a scholar," Wright says. He says he would place a book on the infant, "but today as well, everything is on a computer. So I'm going to put a computer on him." He places an iPad on the baby, then lays a Bible on him.
And then, he spoons the clear liquids into the infant's mouth — one spoonful of water, the other, a soft drink.
"You have to be truthful," he says.
Lt. Cmdr. David Kim, a Navy chaplain, is asked to bless Aviad.
"We thank you for the beauty that we see just in the mix of faces and the mix of cultures," said Kim, the son of Korean immigrants, "and the way that you have brought these cultures and these families together. ... We thank you for the love that is clearly in this room."
Eventually, Ben Akoli is called upon to give a special blessing to his son.
"I want to say today will go down in the history of my family as the best time ever in our lives," he says. "I believe God has a purpose in bringing us here."
He recalls his 3,000-mile journey from his small town in Ghana to the United States, how he left his family behind and how he joined the Navy, still unsure of himself, just to pursue something different. But his first duty station in Quantico took him in, "even as an immigrant," he says.
"To me, the Navy is not only a place to work. We fight for freedom and justice for the whole world, for the country we live in. But above that, I see the Navy as my family."
Akoli blesses his newborn son and gives him words to live by as Aviad, somnolent up to this point, begins to stir in his father's arms.
Be honorable, Akoli tells him. When you see a truth, say it's the truth, even if it's uncomfortable or unpopular.
Your father did not have a car seat, Akoli tells him. He did not sleep in a crib. You, he tells his son, were born in a land of freedom and opportunity where you can practice the religion of your choice. You can be a captain, a doctor, an engineer or a pastor.
The father of the child of America and Africa tells his son that he can be anything, but he must never forget who he is as his story unfolds.
“Aviad Johan Akoli, you will never forget your people. You will never forget where you come from. You will never forget your roots. You will always come home. You will always come home. You will always come home.”