BACKGROUND TO ASHANTI
The period in which these Ashanti Ballads are set is the late 1950's when the Gold Coast became Ghana - the first
African colony to achieve independence. Much has changed since those days.
The ballads record aspects of a traditional way of life with which the modern Ghanaian city dweller is losing
contact. For the benefit of strangers to Ghana, the following notes have been provided to give a background to
the Ashanti Region around the time of independence. The name Ashanti was used by British colonial
administrators to describe the Kingdom of Asante.
The Ashanti Region of Ghana lies at the heart of the West African tropical rain forest. The only major city is the
capital, Kumasi, which is about 150 miles inland from the Gulf of Guinea. The area of Ashanti is 9400 square
miles (approximately one fifth that of England) with a population of about one million at the period
independence, to which the ballads refer.
The Asante kingdom was founded by the great King Osei Tutu in the eighteenth century. His fetish priest was
Okomfo Anokye, who unified the Asante states through allegiance to the Golden Stool, which miraculously
descended from heaven. Okomfo Anokye planted two trees in the forest and predicted that one tree would live
and become the capital of Ashanti. Hence is derived the name Kumasi (the tree lived); the place in which the
other tree was planted became Kumawu (the tree died).
Although located in the heart of the forest, Asante dominion was extended by military action and political skill
towards the European occupied castles on the coast to the south, and also into the dry savannah lands to the
north. This led to various wars with Britain. Kumasi was captured by the British Army in 1873 (as a result of
which much of the magnificent Asante gold regalia can be seen in London in the British Museum). After a final
uprising in 1901, led by the Queen Mother of Ejisu (Yaa Asantewaa) Asante came into British Protection and
finally became a region of the Gold Coast colony.
In 1957, after a period of internal self-government, the Gold Coast became the first African colony to achieve
independence under the charismatic leadership of Kwame Nkrumah.
The Economy at the Time of Independence
Cocoa was the dominant cash crop but food-stuffs, vegetables and fruit for home consumption also flourished.
Typical crops were yam, plantain, cassava, maize, okro, pineapples, oranges and paw-paw. From the forest came
game (bush meat), palm-wine and timber. The railway wagons leaving Kumasi were packed with logs for export.
The gold mines explain why Ghana was called the Gold Coast before independence. The majority of the
population lived in villages and worked on their farms, using a system of shifting cultivation. To create a farm it
was necessary to clear part of the natural forest, although cocoa could be grown between existing trees.
There have been substantial changes in the years since independence, principally the growth of the towns and the
decline of cocoa growing.
The village is a social as well as an economic unit. Everyone participates in the major ceremonies, the most
frequent of which are funeral celebrations which typically last several days. Attendance at funerals is normally
expected from everyone in the village and expenditure on funerals is a substantial part of the household
In each village there are people of particular importance. The Chief (odikro) together with the Elders maintains
traditional customs and ceremonies and deals with disputes. The fetish priest (okomfo) and the herbalist
(odunsini) provide a medical service which can be partly paid for in local produce (a hen, eggs etc.) as opposed to
Western medicine which requires cash payment, and usually a considerable journey to the nearest hospital.
The fetish priest, when possessed by the gods, is particularly powerful at dealing with spiritual problems (e.g.
protection from the witchcraft of enemies). The herbalist relies on local medicines to effect a cure.
The linguist (okyeame) has no corresponding role in western society. A man wishing to consult the fetish priest
or the Chief addresses his remarks to the Linguist, who then passes them on and returns the reply (even though
all three people are present together). The linguist is an intermediary, acting as a buffer to reduce the severity of
utterances and so save delicate situations. If the Chief should make a harsh pronouncement, it is the duty of the
linguist to euphemise and clothe the statement in proverbs.
As in most developing countries, there is a strong extended family system. Poorer members may seek financial
assistance from their better off relatives for school fees, medical expenses etc. But visitors are always welcomed,
even if their arrival may be a cause of financial concern.
In Asante, the family line (abusua) passes through the mother to her children. A man is strongly related to his
mother's brother but only weakly related to his father's brother. This must be viewed in the context of a
polygamous society in which the mother/child bond is likely to be much stronger than the father/child bond.
As a result, in inheritance, a man's nephew (sister's son) will have priority over his own son. Uncle-nephew
relationships therefore assume a dominant position. (Legislation was introduced in 1984 to change this traditional
pattern of inheritance.)
The Language and the Role of Proverbs
The official language is English but this is not spoken by many villagers. The Asante are part of the Akan tribes
who speak various dialects of Twi. The language is very rich in proverbs, the use of which is taken to be a sign of
wisdom. Euphemisms are very common, especially about events connected with death. Rather than say "the King
has died", one would say "a mighty tree has fallen". Proverbs are often used to express ideas indirectly as can be
seen from the following:
"Obi mfa ne nsa benkum nkyere n'agya amanfo" - this is literally
"Do not point to the ruins of your father's house with your left hand"
- which is equivalent to
"Do not scorn culture inherited from your forefathers".
There is a universal God (Onyame) but this does not exclude gods associated with a particular region or spirits
(obosum) by whom a priest may be possessed. (This lack of exclusiveness makes it possible, say, for a fetish
priest to be a Roman Catholic). But there is no doubt of the existence of the Kingdom of the Dead (Samanade) so
custom requires that great attention is paid to the proper conduct of burials and funeral celebrations. Death is the
one great certainty.
Traditional religion does not require regular attendance at particular buildings. Religion is not something that is
remembered for one hour a week. The Gods and the spirits of the ancestors are always present.
Most villages are reached only by laterite roads (often pot- holed) and are not served by any type of government
transport. Privately owned mammy lorries provide the only link with the towns and carry goods and animals as
well as passengers. Many cases have arisen of crops being grown which cannot reach market for lack of
transport. The mammy lorry is the creation of private enterprise and initiative, designed to meet the pressing need
for rural transport.
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