Baba Medahochi Kofi Omowale Zannu. Baba Medahochi is one of the pioneers in Afrikan spirituality in amerikkka and is a spiritual leader in several Afrikan traditions/systems. He is both a brilliant thinker and an amazing visual artist! He is fluent in the Kiswahili language which he began studying at the age of 55 and has dedicated his entire life to the work of ReAfrikanization and Nationbuilding! Baba Medahochi, was also one of the original members of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika.
A Life History By Dee Robinson
Medahochi spent his entire life on a never-ending quest for knowledge. He was a cultural activist, but he claimed no labels. He was a priest of the African Traditional Religion, a visual artist, a writer, a lecturer, a humorist, an avid reader, a teacher, a healer, and he spoke several languages. He was known respectfully by his extended family and friends as Baba.
Named James Allen Butler by his parents, Medahochi was born on September 21, 1923, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. When he was five years old, both of his parents died of pneumonia ten days apart from each other. Fortunately, his relatives stepped in, so he didn’t suffer the pain an orphan would feel. He and his only sister Gladys were raised by his grandparents. Although he missed his parents, he was made to feel comfortable as a child. He remembers always being well fed and loved. The old folks would say, “Be nice to him, you know he lost his parents.” When he was about six years old, his aunts and uncles noticed that he was unlike the other children. He often played alone, sketching pictures or drawing pictures in the dirt outside the house. He was raised in the country, so most of his entertainment was left to his own devices anyway.
Medahochi loved school and was a good student, always eager to learn. An incident in high school had a great impact on his view of learning and played a role in changing his life. There was a white teacher named Miss Campbell who was looking for volunteers to be in a speech class to learn public speaking, so he volunteered. She told the students that Black people often cut off the ending of words, which makes them sound like they have a lazy tongue. She made the students pronounce the word ‘guests’. They all pronounced it incorrectly because they did not add the extra ‘s’ sound at the end. From that point on, he became highly interested in languages and eventually became a self-taught linguist.
His interests in other languages enhanced his understanding in the study of other cultures, philosophies and religions. He appreciated all the other cultures, but realized that there was very little written or to be found about African culture, especially in the 1930s’ South. It was around this time that he began his quest to learn all he could about the culture of his ancestors. He felt that knowledge of self should be the centerpiece of one’s learning.
Being born and raised in the South, he had experienced segregation first hand. In spite of the widely known knowledge of the horrors related to being Black in the South, he claimed that it was not that bad. He grew up with segregation and stated that it did not bother him too much because it was the norm at that time. He believed it was more traumatic to an outsider looking in. For a person living there for their entire life he said, “That’s just the way life was.” He was very familiar with the KKK, but never had any personal experiences. He greatly understood the importance of the civil rights struggle, but always kept it in perspective. The results of the Brown vs. Board of Education case did not have much of an impact on him personally. It made him proud for the advancement of his people, but he shared the idea that integration would cause more problems than segregation had.
Medahochi joined the United States Army and served four years. He fought in World War II. Although he was not involved in hand to hand combat and never saw an enemy close up, he did shoot rounds at enemy aircraft. He was proud of Dorie Miller’s heroic role during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even as a war veteran, he experienced discrimination. What was surprising to him, however, was his realization that discrimination was as prevalent in the North as it was in the South. An incident happened after he returned from the war in 1944. He and a lady friend went in a diner for a bite to eat. They were ignored by the waitresses until he got one’s attention. She quite rudely advised him that they “did not serve colored people,” and that if he wanted something to eat he would have to go to the basement.
It was also in 1944 that he read a book that would change his life forever. It was called Freedom’s a Hard Bought Thing written by Stephen Vincent Benet. In it was a character named Kofi who was associated with Shango, the thunder deity. Medahochi saw himself in that character and took the name Kofi as his first name—a Ghanaian name that means ‘born on Friday’. He took the name Omowale as his last name—a Yoruba name that means ‘this child has returned home’.
Medahochi continued to search for information on his ancestors’ culture and he devoured every book written about Africa. He read books such as Stolen Legacy by George G. M. James, Myth of the Negro Past by Melville J. Herskovits, World’s Great Men of Color by J. A. Rogers, and Black Folk Then and Now by W. E. B. DuBois. His interests were not limited to Africa, however. He read book after book on astronomy, politics, American and European literature, geography, anthropology, biology, botany, agriculture, martial arts, aquatic life, religions, of course, and too many other subjects to list.
Medahochi had an almost photographic memory and he retained practically everything he read. It was like he could absorb knowledge and information. He earned the reputation as a ‘walking encyclopedia’, and his peers looked up to him and considered him a man of wisdom. Other people began to seek him out for his advice and counsel.
It wasn’t long before he had ‘followers’—people that would come to his home to listen to him express his views on life and the world. Many visits became question and answer sessions, and people would come with pad and pen. They would follow him wherever he went. He was their leader. It was not a role he sought, and he didn’t view himself as a leader. There was never any discussion or declaration about him being the leader, but those who followed him designated him their leader by their actions. He let them know that he did not have the answers to all life’s questions and that he was on a quest for truth himself, whatever that might be. However, that did not deter them, they believed in him.
Medahochi’s path in life was with ‘cultural rights’ more so than civil rights. He was not directly involved in the civil rights struggle, but he supported it. He understood Booker T. Washington’s point about learning a trade, but totally disagreed with the Atlanta Compromise. He agreed more with W. E. B. DuBois, but also saw glaring flaws in his position on the Talented Tenth. Medahochi appreciated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to social change, but he agreed more with Malcolm X. He was a Garveyite.
Medahochi believed Marcus Garvey was one of the greatest men of the 20th Century because of his belief in self-determination. He had great admiration for people who were not afraid to buck the system, like Adam Clayton Powell, Mahatma Ghandi, Jomo Kenyata, Nelson Mandela, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Elijah Muhammad, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown), and especially Paul Robeson. Medahochi was extremely impressed with Paul Robeson’s ability to speak 26 languages.
There were many historic events that had an impact on him. He vividly recalls the Scottsboro Trials where nine African American boys were falsely accused and imprisoned for raping two white women. He was disgusted with the lack of justice in the first set of trials for the young men. He was, however, grateful that they were adequately protected from the lynch mobs. The horrific lynching of Emmitt Till, the 13-year old boy from Chicago who was accused of whistling at a white woman troubled him the rest of his life. He had committed Emmett Till’s death to memory.
In the 1960s Medahochi and his wife Modupe Omowale became the African cultural pioneers of Gary, Indiana. Together they introduced African culture at a time when the masses were still unaware of the significance of their heritage. In 1968, they founded the Omowale Culture Center, which served as the engine that powered the African American cultural experience in the Midwest. Modupe started sewing and providing wardrobes for everyone who wanted to wear African garb. She got recipes and cooked African dishes. She made beautiful African jewelry that adorned the heads of sisters who started to wear Afros and geles.
Medahochi would lecture on history, religion, politics, and a host of subjects. He taught classes and held question/answer sessions. The Omowale Culture Center was the home of Pan-Afrikanism, and Modupe and Medahochi were genuine catalysts for change in the 1960s. Medahochi saw changes in the 1970s when drugs began to proliferate in African American communities around the country. Organizations promoting Black consciousness were infiltrated by the CIA and FBI, and they either stopped or lost all their influence. Medahochi, however, stayed the course. It was at this time that he added the name Zannu, which means ‘a person born in the night’ and the title Medahochi, which means ‘my elder person’. At that point in his life, Medahochi had become more overtly cerebral and expressed most of his thoughts philosophically and through parables. He also became a vegetarian.
In the 1980s Medahochi relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and had entered into a spiritual union with Nochi Tanyi Hwesihuno. In every way she was his spiritual counterpart, counsel, and companion. Nochi in her own right was a respected diviner and renowned priestess of Naete/Yemaya. By the 1990s Medahochi had become known and respected in many parts of the country. He began to get requests to lecture in other cities. He had‘followers’ who were now considered ‘students’ or ‘godchildren’ in several states, including Georgia, Florida, New York, Texas, California, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Illinois, Colorado, and Michigan. Most of his students now are college graduates, many with Masters and Doctorates in a variety of disciplines.
His steadfast commitment to African spirituality was recognized when he and Baba Oseijerman were invited to be a participant in the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago in 1993. Medahochi was invited to represent African Spirituality. The Parliament of World’s Religions was attended by more than 8,000 representatives of virtually all ‘major’ religions. People from all over the world came to celebrate diversity and explore religious and spiritual responses to critical world issues. Medahochi was one of the signers of the groundbreaking document, Towards a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration. The Parliament was attended by such notables as Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Medahochi was seated next to the Dalai Lama.
In the 2000s Medahochi settled comfortably into his life’s position. At 83, he had become a respected elder in the African cultural community. He had become a vegan and a very disciplined eater. He had not added any salt to his meals in over 40 years. He believed that one should eat for sustenance, not for pleasure. His artwork graces the homes of his ‘students’ all over the country.
Medahochi was well loved by his family and extended family. Medahochi was affectionately considered a ‘cantankerous old man’ because he was set in his ways and spoiled by everybody. His children, grandchildren and godchildren lovingly competed for his attention. There are ceremonies and celebrations in his honor. Toward the end of his life, Medahochi explained that his journey would continue, and that he was still on his quest for knowledge. Even though he saw new vistas, he was still learning and considered himself a student of the universe of which one can never graduate.