ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Katamanso, “The Covering of the Nation,” is made of camel’s hair and wool
Osei Tutu and Komfo Anokye A newly installed chief
The Ashanti Empire of West Africa
A Historical & Cultural Background
The Ashanti established their state in its historically known location shortly after their first encounter with Europeans. Some of its features — military and economic — evolved directly out of its wars and dislocations caused by Europeans, who greedily sought the famous gold deposits, which gave this coastal region its name, Gold Coast. During the 16th century when the Portuguese were active in West Africa, the Ashanti manifested themselves merely as small independent chiefdoms, each with its own capital town and political institutions. European intrusion initiated, however, economic competition and political unrest.
Osei Tutu and his priest Komfo Anokye unifed the independent chiefdoms into a powerful political and military power in the region. The new national spirit and dynasty developed through the invention of the Golden Stool, which Komfo Anokye brought down from the heavens represented the ancestors of all the Ashanti. And upon that Stool Osei Tutu established his rule and the Empire. His new state extended its power, territory, and strength. The Empire buckled only in 1874 before the military and imperialistic might British. By that time the Ashanti had become one people and have remained so firmly until today.
Geography, Demography, & Housing
The former Gold Coast (now Ghana) has a variable terrain — coasts and mountains; forests and grasslands, fertile agricultural areas and near deserts. The Ashanti territory is inland and located centrally — mostly fertile and partly mountainous. There are two seasons — the rainy (April to November) and the dry. The land is well-drained by numerous streams; the dry season, however is very dry. It is hot all year round.
Ashanti is a bit more healthy than the coast. But like West Africa in general malaria remains a scourge and there are numerous fevers — backwater, yellow, relapsing, typhoid, typhus, cholera, and others. Leprosy, elephantiasis, and sleeping sickness are the more spectacular diseases; intestinal and skin parasites, however occur more frequently.
In the mid 1970s the Ashanti numbered more than 200,000, speaking Twi, a member of the Niger-Congo language group. (The Ashanti are now about 28% of a Ghana population of between 5 and 7 million people. There political power has waxed and waned since Ghana become the first modern independent African nation.) They lived in scattered villages and larger towns, with some more than 1,000.
The houses of the poor are plastered wattle-and-daub construction domed by a thatched roof of grass, formed in compounds of connected buildings arranged around a court. The larger towns have palaces, whose walls are of sun-baked clay, enclosing many rooms. Artistic scroll designs adorn the walls and posts and wide verandas encircle the house. The roofs of the larger house use leaves sewn together, shingle like.
The Ashanti are an agricultural people and the land so extensively farmed that hunting with large animals scarce plays a negligible role in economic activity. They obtain fish usually through trade from coastal groups specialized as fishermen. Dogs, goats, and fowl are frequently found; especially chicken, for the Ashanti us them in sacrifices and divination as well as food. In some districts, sheep, pigs, and cattle are kept.
The Ashanti prepare the fields by burning before the onset of the rainy season and cultivated with an iron hoe. Fields are fallowed for several years after two to four years of cultivation. Plants cultivated include plantains, yams, manioc, corn; sweet potatoes, millet, beans, onions, peanuts, tomatoes, and many fruits. Of course, manioc and corn are New World transplants introduced during the Atlantic European trade.
Many of these vegetables crops can be harvested twice a year and the cassava (manioc), after a two-year growth, provides a starchy roots daily. The Ashanti transform at times palm wine, maize and millet into beer, a favorite drink; and make use of the oil from palm for many culinary and domestic uses.
The Ashanti are expert craftsmen. Ironworking by bellows and charcoal fire is a specialized craft. Their blacksmiths make work tools such as ax and hoe blades, knives, daggers, projectiles, nails, hammers; in addition to many ornaments — bells, chains, etc. Handmade pottery is also a specialized craft, as well as woodcarving, which in many cases approaches high art in figurines and stools and collected in both Europe and America.
Initially, the Ashanti made clothing from bark. But in the 17th century, they learned the art of weaving. Clothing production is also gender specialized. Women grown and pick the cotton and spin it into thread. The weaving performed along family lines is men’s work. Traditionally the Ashanti weaver uses a small horizontal loom and produces a narrow bolt. They weave artistic designs into the fabric or stamp it with dye. The great ceremonial umbrellas that shelter chiefs receive special attention from these craftsmen. Related to the Golden Stool, the umbrella called Katamanso, “The Covering of the Nation,” is made of camel’s hair and wool. A ornamental figurine, plated with gold or silver, tops all ceremonial umbrellas.
The Ashanti invented also a “talking drum.” They drum messages to the extent of 200 miles, as rapid as a telegraph. Ashanti language is tonal and more meaning is generate by tone than in English. The drums reproduce these tones, punctuation, and the accents of a phrase so that the cultivated ear hears the phrase itself. The Ashanti readily hear and understand whole phrases produced by the drum. Stock phrases call for meetings of the chiefs and to arms, warn of danger, and transmit notice of the death of important personages Some drums are used for proverbs and ritual performance.
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Family, Females, and Children
The household, the basis of economic and social life, is often polygynous. In Ashanti the female line (matrilineality) is of great significance. Through the mother, male or female are related by blood to others and this kinship determines land rights, inheritance of property, offices and titles. One derives also from this line social and political status, and the focus of ancestor cult, upon which religious activity is based. The blood produces emotional ties, for it is the mother’s blood that creates the child’s body.
The father catalyzes the conception and provides the spirit (ntoro) to the child, that is, the child receives its life force from the father. Its character and personality reflects that of the father. Though not considered as important as the mother, the male fine continues in the place of birth after marriage, that is, the wife leaves her family home. The male line thus create a patrilineal village. In a sense, every person has two lines — one provides the blood, land, and inheritance, and the other, the spirit.
The female line also establishes the clan, abusua, all who descend from a common female ancestor. The ntoro and abusua lines are totemic (associated with plant or animal that worked with or helped the ancestors) and practice food taboos and prohibit marriages with fellow members.
The abusua ancestors own the land and are buried in it. No individual Ashanti owns land, but rather occupies that which came down from an ancestor. The products produced from the land can be owned individually. But the occupier cannot be removed from the land nor can the land be sold, nor determine which of his descendants get a major share. Because the land is matrilineal, a man’s good are passed to his brother, if he dies young, or passed to his sister’s sons.. Certain goods, if agreed by the abusua, can be passed from father to son.
Property made or acquired by individual efforts can be possessed by both and women. Heirlooms and carved stools — all possessions of family and lineage property — can be disposed of by individuals.
Trade occurs at both the state and local levels. The state runs the import-export business and other local trade takes place in local market towns, where handicrafts and food products are exchanged. This minor trade tends to be conducted by women, though in the interest of the household. Traditionally, local trade involves much haggling whether exchanges occur through barter directly or cowrie shells as a medium. State representative regulate these local markets and exact taxes.
Also, by tradition, Ashanti bought and sold slaves. This trade in slaves tended to occur not in the market but through personal transactions. Those enslaved included prisoners of war and criminals, but also those place in servitude as pawns for debt. Pawn work was interest on a loan. When possible the debtors redeemed these pawns and the pawns retained their clan affiliations and their offspring suffered no stigma.
Slaves, the Ashanti report, were seldom cruelly used. A person who abuses a slave was held as contemptible. They further demonstrate the humanity of Ashanti slavery ( in relation to that slavery in the Americas) by pointing out that slaves were allowed to marry, though the children belonged to the master, rather than the mother’s clan. If found desirable a female slave became a wife; the master preferred such a status to that of a free woman in a usual marriage. This marriage allowed the children to inherit some of the father’s property and status.
This preferred arrangement with pawn wife occurred because of conflict with the matrilineal system. The Ashanti slave master felt more comfortable with a slave or pawn wife who had no abusua to intercede on her behalf every time the couple argued. With the wife’s slave status, the man controlled his children absolutely with the mother isolated from her own kin.
In the Ashanti pattern of kinship, those of the same generation are all siblings. A woman refers to them as child, and a man, sister’s child. Those of the parent’s generation, women are all called mother, and men, mother’s brother (The actual father, of course, is not a member of the female line.) In the male line, all male members are called father, and females, female father.
Political Order & Status
Status among families is political. The royal family tops the hierarchy, followed by the families of chiefs of territorial divisions. In each chiefdom, a particular female line provides the chief. That chief is chosen from among several men eligible for the post.
The election of chiefs follows a pattern. The senior female of the chiefly lineage nominates from eligible males. This senior female then consults the elders, male and female, of that line. The final candidate is then selected. That nomination is then sent to a council of elders, who represent other lineages in the town or district. The Elders then present the nomination to the assembled people.
If they disprove of the nominee, the process begins again. Chosen, the new chief is enstooled by the Elders, who admonish him with expectations.
The chosen chief swears a solemn oath to the Earth Goddess and to his ancestors to fulfill his duties honorably
This elected and enstooled chief enjoys a great regal ceremony with much pomp and celebration. He reigns with much despotic power, including to make judgments of life and death on his subjects. Upon the stool, the chief is sacred, the holy intermediary between people and ancestors. His powers theoretically are more apparent than real. His powers hinge on his attention to the advice and decisions of the Council of Elders The chief can be impeached, destooled, if the Elders and the people turn against him. He can be reduced to man, subject to derision for his failure.
The Ashantihene (King of al all Ashanti) reigns over all and chief of the division of Kumasi, the nation’s capital. He is appointed in the same manner as all other chiefs. In this hierarchical structure, chiefs swear fealty to the one above him — from village and subdivision to division to the chief of Kumasi.
The elders and the people (public opinion) circumscribe the power of the Ashantihene, and the chiefs of other divisions considerably check the power of the King. Nevertheless, as the symbol of the nation, the Ashantihene receives substantial deference ritually for the context is religious in that he represents the ancestors in the flesh. The land belongs to the King means that it belongs to the tribal ancestors whom he represents. The King cannot alienate the land or indulge any arbitrary act not agreed upon by the people.
The existence of aristocratic clans and the council of elders evidence an oligarchical tendency in Ashanti political life. Though older men tend to monopolize political power, Ashanti instituted an organization of young men, the nmerante, that tend to democratize the political process. The council elders undertake actions only after consulting a representative of the Young Men. Their views must be added to all meetings.
The Ashanti state, in effect, is thus a theocracy. It invokes religious rather than secular-legal postulates. What the modern state views as crimes, Ashanti view as sins. Antisocial acts disrespect the ancestors, and only secondarily harmful to the community. If the chief or King fail to punish such acts, he invokes the anger of the ancestors. The penalty for all crimes (sins) is death.
The King exacts or commutes all capital cases. These commuted sentences by King and chiefs sometimes occur by ransom or bribe; they are regulated in such a way that they should not be mistaken for fines, but are considered as revenue to the state, which welcomes quarrels and litigation. Commutations tend to be more frequent than executions.
Ashanti abhor most murder and suicide is considered murder. They decapitate the suicide, the standard punishment for murder. The suicide thus had contempt for the court, for only the King can kill and Ashanti.
In a murder trial intent must be established. If the homicide is accidental, the murderer pays compensation to the lineage of the deceased. The insane cannot be executed because of the absence of responsible intent. Except for murder or cursing the King, drunkenness is a valid defense. Capital crimes include incest within the female or male line, intercourse with a menstruating woman, rape of a married woman, and adultery with any of the wives of a chief or the King. Assaults or insults of a chief or the court or the King or a woman calling a man a fool carried the death penalty.
Cursing (or blessing) the King, calling down powers to harm the King, — a horrid act — also carries the weight of death. One who invokes another to commit such an act must pay a heavy indemnity. Practitioners of sorcery and witchcraft receive death but not by decapitation, for their blood must not be shed. They receive execution by clubbing, strangling, burning, or drowning.
Ordinarily, families or lineages settle disputes between individuals. But such disputes can be brought to trial before a chief by uttering the tabooed oath of a chief or the King. In the end the King’s Court is the sentencing court, for only the King orders the death penalty. Before the Council of Elders and the King’s Court the litigants orate extensively. Any present can cross-examine and if the proceedings do not lead to a verdict, a special witness is called to provide additional testimony. And there is only one witness, whose oath sworn assures the truth told. That he favors or is hostile to either litigant is unthinkable. Cases with no witness, like sorcery or adultery are settled by ordeals, like drinking poison.
Ancestor worship establishes the Ashanti moral system, and it provides thus the fundamental foundation for governmental sanctions. The link between mother and child centers the entire network, which includes ancestors and fellow men as well. Its judicial system emphasizes the Ashanti conception of rectitude and good behavior, which favors harmony among the people. The rules were made by the gods and the ancestors and one must behave accordingly.
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Conception, Marriage & Death
The mingling during intercourse of the male spirit (ntoro) with the female blood causes conception. In the eighth month the mother goes to her mother’s house. The period of childbirth excludes males. The mother assisted by four midwives gives birth in a sitting position. The child receives its name at birth, given the name of the particular day of its birth. The midwives cut the umbilical cord against a piece of wood and the infant is then bathed. Unlike other cultures, the afterbirth is discarded without ritual burial.
During the first eight days, the Ashanti consider the baby a ghost child, uncertain whether the child will live or die. A ghost mother in the spirit world lost this child and will make an attempt to get it back, it is believed. If the child still lives, the family holds a ceremony to affirm that the child is a true human baby and the child receives a patronym of a paternal grandfather or grandmother and thus binds it to its fathers line, the ntoro. The day name remains important and is used more frequently.
The Ashanti kill twins only in the royal family. Ordinarily, boy twins become fly switchers at court and twin girls potential wives of the King. If the twins are a boy and girl no particular career awaits them. Women who bear triplets are greatly honored because three is regarded as a lucky number. Special rituals ensue for the third, sixth, and ninth child. The fifth child (unlucky five) can expect misfortune. Families with many children are respected and barren women derided.
Indulgent parents are typical among the Ashanti. Childhood is a happy time and children are not responsible for their actions. the child has not power to do good or evil until after puberty. the death of a child does not require a funeral. Though there is no lack of sentiment, they bury these pot children (named for the receptacle used for burial) in the refuse dump without ceremony. A child is harmless and there is no worry for the control of its soul, the original purpose of all funeral rites.
The Ashanti hold puberty rites only for girls. Fathers instruct their sons without public observance. As menstruation approaches, a girl goes to her mother’s house. When the the girl’s menstruation is disclosed, the mother announces the good news in the village beating an iron how with a stone. Old women come out and sing bara (menstrual) songs. The mother spills a libation of palm wine on the earth and recites the following prayer:
Supreme Sky God, who alone is great
upon whom men lean and do not fall
receive this wine and drink.
Earth Goddess, whose day
of worship is Thursday
receive this wine and drink
Spirit of our ancestors
receive this wine and drink
O Ghost Mother do not come
and take her away
and do not permit her
to menstruate only to die.
Five days after menstruation begins, the mother’s party bedecks the girl with finery and display her publicly. The girl engages in ritual bathing and eating, which lifts observed taboos. The ceremony completed younger children address the girl as mother. Old women regard this new state in sadness, for the death of one of them approaches. As a birth occurs in this world and a death in the spirit world, the “birth” of a girl into full womanhood signals one shall be taken away.
Menstruating women suffer many restrictions. The Ashanti view them as ritually unclean. They cook for no male, nor eat any food cooked for a man. If a menstruating woman enters the ancestral stool house, she suffers death instantly. If this punishment is not exacted, the Ashanti believe, the ghost of the ancestors would strangle the chief. She crosses the threshold of no man’s house and thus she lives in a special house during these periods. She swears no oath and none swears an oath against her. She visits no sacred places.
The Ashanti betroth a girl, if not in childhood, immediately after the puberty ceremony. They do not regard marriage as an important ritual event, but as a state that follows soon and normally after the puberty ritual. A man marries a cross cousin — his father’s sister’s daughter or his mother’s brother’s daughter. Parallel cousins are members of the same abusua group and hence prohibited as marriage partners. Sometimes marriage arrangement are arranged before the birth of the couple. Parents allow the boy some initiative, but he must receive the consent of the households, the only formalities required. The Ashanti require a bride price, various good give by the boy’s family to that of the girl.
The Ashanti require a girl to be a virgin at marriage and punish adultery severely. If a wife is caught or confesses, her parents must make the husband a compensatory payment and the seducer pays an amount commensurate with his social status. Adultery with any of the King’s wives result in torture of the seducer and death for the guilty wife and close relatives of both. The Ashanti allow a man a divorce for a wife’s adultery, as well as barrenness, drunkenness, quarrelsomeness, witchcraft, and mother-in-law trouble.
The Ashanti also allow a woman a divorce for impotence, adultery, laziness, witchcraft, desertion, or for taking a wife without her permission, if she is a senior wife.Among the Ashanti, polygyny is very common and legal. But the senior wife must be consulted. Seemingly, in this agricultural society, jealousy is infrequent, for the woman likes to have a co-wife to lighten the work. Additional wives add to the husband’s prestige and status.
Sickness and death are major events. The ordinary herbalist divines the supernatural cause of the illness and treats it with herbal medicines. The witch doctor, a person possessed by a spirit, combats pure witchcraft . A witch uses power as black magic for malevolent or antisocial purposes.
If the cure fails, the family perform the last rites. The a member of the family pour a little water down the throat of the dying person when it is believed the soul is leaving the body and recite the following prayer:
Your clansmen [naming them] say: Receive this water and drink, and do not permit any evil to come whence you are setting out, and permit all the women of the household to bear children.
People loath being alone for long without someone available to perform this rite before the ill collapse. The family washes the corpse and dress it in its best clothes and adorn it with packets of gold dust (soul money), ornaments, and food for the journey “up the hill.” The body is buried within 24 hours. Until that time the funeral party engage in dancing, drumming, shooting of guns, and much drunkenness, all accompanied by the wailing of relatives.
The Day of Rising occurs the sixth day after death when the soul is finally dispatched from the vicinity. the blood relatives shave their heads and put the hair into a pot. They sacrifice and cook a sheep. They carry the food, utensils, and the pot of hair to a special place in the cemetery where the ghost of the deceased will find them and take them for his journey. They then resume normal life, except the resume mourning on the eighth, fifteenth, fortieth, and eightieth days, and at one year.
Of course, funeral rites for the death of a King involve the whole kingdom and are much more of an elaborate affair. The Ashanti, like other west coast kingdom, are known for human sacrifices at the death of a King. A number of the King’s wives are strangled, the aristocratic method of death, in order to accompany the King into the afterworld, along with representatives of the palace staff. These victims are expected to enjoy this honor and sometimes volunteer. Throughout the districts of the kingdom sacrifices of slaves, criminals, and waylaid strangers occur while the King lies in state.
The greatest and most frequent ceremonies of the Ashanti recall the spirits of departed rulers with an offering of food and drink, asking their favor for the good of all the people. Called the Adae, these ceremonies occur every 21 days The day before the Adae, talking drums announce the approaching ceremonies. The stool treasurer gathers sheep and liquor which will be offered. The priest chief officiates the Adae in the stool house where the ancestors come The priest offers each food and drink. The public ceremony occurs outdoors, where all join the dancing. Minstrels chant tribal traditions; the talking drums extoll the chief and the ancestors in traditional phrases.
The Odwera, the other large ceremony, occurs in September and lasts for a week or two. It is a time of cleansing the society of sin and defilement and for the purification of shrines of ancestors and gods. After the sacrifice and feast of a black hen — of which both the living and the dead share, a new year begins in which all are clean, strong, and healthy.
The ever-present concern with ancestors is the strongest motif of all ceremonies. But Ashanti religion and cosmology extend beyond the ancestors. The universe is peopled with many kinds of spirits, the greatest of which is the Supreme One, who heads a pantheon of gods and spirits, all are descendants of their Creator. These intermediaries act as patrons of villages, districts, and household. Others are gods of a place, a geographic features, such as the gods of rivers. Many myths describe how the Supreme One and the other gods acquired their characteristics.
Each god has a temporary abode on earth. The shrine may be as simple as a stone or a more elaborate image. Trained priests look after these objects and shrines. Their knowledge consists in how to call the god to come and speak, using the priest himself as a medium. there are minor spirits who abide in beads and other small objects which are carried by ordinary people as charms and fetishes. The Ashanti believe all animals and plants have souls to which appeals can be made. Some spirits, of course, are hostile and are found in the forests and from them black magic and witchcraft may be learned. In any event, all are related and descend from the Supreme One.
Among the Ashanti, Christianity and Islam have modified some of these traditional practices. The ancestors, as well as matrilineal descent, bride price, and the concept of the descent of the spirit from the Supreme One through males, however, continue as an important aspects of identity and group relations.
Abusua The family in Akan society
Adae Akan sacred day. According to the traditional lunar calendar, an Adae day occurs every fortnight.
Asafo Traditional Akan men’s association and originally fighting companies.
Asante/Ashanti/Ashantee Akan group, geographically located to the central part of the country. Founders of the Asante Empire, and speakers of Asante-Twi language.
Asantehene King of Asante.
Bosomtwi (Lake) The only natural lake in Ghana. It is located about 32 km to the south-east of Kumasi, the Asante capital.
Odwira Annual Akan festival for the propitiation of the ancestors.
Source: Elman R. Service. Profiles in Ethnology. NY Harper & Row, 1978. Editor’s note: For readability or clarity, I rewrote and revised Service’s chapter titled “The Ashanti of West Africa” (353-369).
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Explores the life and work of the psychoanalytic theorist and activist Frantz Fanon who was born in Martinique, educated in Paris and worked in Algeria. Examines Fanon’s theories of identity and race, and traces his involvement in the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria and throughout the world.
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Kwame Nkrumah (21 September 1909 – 27 April 1972) was the leader of Ghana and its predecessor state, the Gold Coast, from 1952 to 1966. Overseeing the nation’s independence from British colonial rule in 1957, Nkrumah was the first President of Ghana and the first Prime Minister of Ghana. An influential 20th century advocate of Pan-Africanism, he was a founding member of the Organization of African Unity and was the winner of the Lenin Peace Prize in 1963. . . . Nkrumah’s advocacy of industrial development at any cost, with help of longtime friend and Minister of Finance, Komla Agbeli Gbedema, led to the construction of a hydroelectric power plant, the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River in eastern Ghana. Kaiser Aluminum agreed to build the dam for Nkrumah, but restricted what could be produced using the power generated. Nkrumah borrowed money to build the dam, and placed Ghana in debt. To finance the debt, he raised taxes on the cocoa farmers in the south. This accentuated regional differences and jealousy. The dam was completed and opened by Nkrumah amidst world publicity on 22 January 1966. Nkrumah appeared to be at the zenith of his power, but the end of his regime was only days away.
Nkrumah wanted Ghana to have modern armed forces, so he acquired aircraft and ships, and introduced conscription.He also gave military support to those fighting the Smith administration in Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia. In February 1966, while Nkrumah was on a state visit to North Vietnam and China, his government was overthrown in a military coup led by Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka and the National Liberation Council. Several commentators, such as John Stockwell, have claimed the coup received support from the CIA. . . .
Nkrumah never returned to Ghana, but he continued to push for his vision of African unity. He lived in exile in Conakry, Guinea, as the guest of President Ahmed Sékou Touré, who made him honorary co-president of the country. He read, wrote, corresponded, gardened, and entertained guests. Despite retirement from public office, he was still frightened of western intelligence agencies. When his cook died, he feared that someone would poison him, and began hoarding food in his room. He suspected that foreign agents were going through his mail, and lived in constant fear of abduction and assassination. In failing health, he flew to Bucharest, Romania, for medical treatment in August 1971. He died of skin cancer in April 1972 at the age of 62.Wikipedia
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 29 September 2007