Akwasidae and other controversies

I wanted to eat palm nut soup, but was happy to settle for RedRed. Have you spotted the Milo tablecloth?

I wanted to eat palm nut soup, but was happy to settle for RedRed. Have you spotted the Milo tablecloth?

Our trip to Mensakrom marked the beginning of a flurry of activity for us. Our next excursion was the Ghana National Cultural Centre, as it’s officially called, although I tend to think of it as the Kumasi Cultural Centre, because that’s where it is, just up the hill from Kejetia and down the hill from Akomf Anokye hospital.

I had fond memories of the restaurant in the Cultural Centre from previous visits when the Kentish Cafe served a delicious abenkwan. I knew there were also some craftsmen and women you could watch at work, and a theatre which sometimes had performances, though I’d never seen one. I was also hoping to find out if you could do dancing classes. What I had forgotten was that there are lots of shops selling arts and crafts and everyone is keen to get a sale. Is desperate too strong a word?

We went on a spending spree and spent far more money than I’d intended, but it was an interesting day. ActionMan wanted to buy almost everything he saw, and I felt much the same way. You could clothe yourself and furnish and decorate a house with the tie and dye cloth, ceramics, woodwork, lost wax bronze, paintings and cane-work, most of it of very good quality. I was disappointed that most of the wood is stained. It looks good but I prefer the natural grain. I guess most of it’s not good enough quality wood for that.

Kentish weren’t serving abenkwan, but we had a tasty lunch. I ate another favourite of mine, Red Red: fried red plantains with a bean and palm oil stew. We also missed out on the performances, so will be back another day for that. Instead, we visited the Museum.

The museum displays weapons, costumes and other paraphernalia relating to the history of the Asantehene, Paramount chief of the Asante (Ashanti) people. They have a photos of previous rulers, including the famous Yaa Asantewaa, a Queen Mother who lead the fight against British colonisation in the 19th C, plus old executioners knives, swords and battle dress, traditional bathing and cooking paraphernalia, and a great little bookshop.

The Asante nation is made up of eight clans, and the ceremonial staffs of these clans were on display. Afia Serwaa, who was our escort on this trip, told us the family’s clan was Asona, the clan of the pied crow. We’ve been seeing a lot of them about – a bit like magpies, but with a band of white around their middle rather than the more irregular markings of a magpie. ActionMan’s clan staff was broken, I hope that’s not a bad omen. On the other hand, perhaps it’s not really his clan. I just read on the internet that the clans are matrilineal, in which case he’s not Asante at all. I’ll have to ask the family what they think about this.

The guide who showed us around made the rather shabby collection of items come to life, he was so knowledgeable. He also told us that on that coming Sunday, there would be a durbar, Akwasidae, at the Asantehene’s palace in Manhyia (pronounced Manshia, a suburb of Kumasi). He said he was taking a group of obrunis to it. Had I known more about it, or been more on the ball, I would have asked if I could join the group, but I thought I’d just go with family. It turned out to be not quite as straightforward as that.

Akwasidae is a public assembly occurring every 42 days in which chiefs perform ceremonies to invoke their ancestors and accept tribute from their people. Although I’ve been to Ghana several times, I’ve never been to any kind of traditional event or ceremony such as this. I guess that’s due to a combination of factors – wrong time of year, being isolated in the village, DadaK not being around to tell me about it and take me, and reluctance or lack of interest from the family, who may not have realised I’d like to see something like this and weren’t interested in promoting it.

An obruni friend of mine, who lived here in the 80s and travels to Ghana frequently, thinks that in that time the influx of evangelical Christian missions and the growth of Christianity have eroded traditional culture. Perhaps it’s also just increasing exposure to the west. Good old cultural imperialism. ActionMan commented to me, on our recent trip to Bolga, that tourists seemed to like African things more than Africans. He was at the time loaded down with purchases from the Bolga cultural centre, and no-one would have mistaken him for a local. On our walk around the Kumasi Cultural Centre, Afia Serwaa turned her nose up at a number of items influenced by ‘traditional’ culture, including jewelry, which her Seventh Day Adventist faith doesn’t allow her to wear.

It does raise some interesting questions about culture, change and self-determination. After all, why should Africans retain cultural activities, music and crafts just because non-Africans think they’re cool? On the other hand, if they’re ditching those practices because American evangelical churches are telling them to, is that really any different? Not in my opinion.

I was raised a Christian and although I’m no longer a believer, I have respect for some of the teachings. But I am troubled by the manifestations of Christianity I see here. But that’s for another post. I indulged in that short diversion just to make the point that you can’t rely on your African family share your interest in African culture. And there is another reason why they might not: fear.

It seems that past Asantehenes, like most monarchs of old, ruled through terror, and so effectively that even today some of their ‘subjects’ are still too scared to go near them.

When I announced that I wanted to go to Akwasidae, the family initially thought I wanted to go to Manhyia to see the Asantehene’s palace, which has a museum attached, and it was all cool. Gyamfi volunteered to come with us. But when they realised I was going to Akwasidae, that all changed. It was like a space suddenly cleared around me. Oh no, that wasn’t going to be possible – far too dangerous.

Nana, overhearing the conversation, even called me into her room to tell me why I shouldn’t go. This day was a ‘forbidden day’. If you weren’t authorised to be in attendance, or if you went and did the wrong thing, you could be killed. Everyone kept dragging a finger across their throats to make this point absolutely clear. Akwasidae needed human blood to be celebrated, and the Asantehene’s guards were looking for any excuse to get some. Yes times had changed … but … but …

In the old days when an Asantehene died, people stayed indoors because his warriors would go out seeking human heads on which to rest his coffin – usually those of children. In short, that whole place around Manhyia was drenched in blood and we should find something else to do.

I asked Nana to tell me more about the old days, with Gyamfi as interpreter. I was interested to know more about the traditional culture, and in particular, how influential Christianity was when she was a child. Nana was raised a Christian, but the religion clearly didn’t have as strong a grip on the society as it does now.

After a while she remembered that the previous Asantehene had commanded that no-one would go head-hunting after his death, and that the current one, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, is a university graduate (Legon and North London) who has lived in the UK and Canada, and is unlikely to perpetuate the more barbarous customs of his ancestors. Also these days they sacrificed goats, not human beings, and as obruni we’d be off limits anyway.

She finally conceded that times have changed, and decided that we were allowed to go, and that whoever wished to escort us was allowed to go too.

So who was to escort us? Gyamfi had withdrawn from the adventure and didn’t change his mind. DadaK was conveniently sick, which is why he hadn’t been involved with the discussion with Nana, although he’d already told us it was okay to go, so long as ActionMan behaved well. There wasn’t exactly a rush of volunteers.

That's the Asantehene, way up the back there. I don't have a good enough camera, and of course I was too terrified to get any closer to him.

That's the Asantehene, way up the back there. Sorry about the quality, my camera's not good enough to get a better shot, and of course I was way too terrified to get any closer to him.

I think it’s significant that the only people who put their hand up were the two youngest adults: Martha and Yaa Ketewa. The least affected by ancient fears? They were enthusiastic about going, and when we got there, far more interested in the proceedings than either of us were. Well, they understood the language, that makes a difference.

We got there after it had started, to see the Asantehene already sitting in state on a shady verandah, receiving visitors bearing gifts, which ranged from bottles of gin to large gift-wrapped boxes to live goats. The goats stayed alive. After all the hype I was a touch disappointed. The assembled dignitaries, hangers-on and tourists were mostly outside in the courtyard under large decorated umbrellas (or not, in our case). The umbrellas, DadaK told me later, represented the different clans, and each was decorated accordingly so that you could find your own mob when you needed to.

Apart from all the regalia, which is always interesting, and the procession of different groups arriving to pledge allegiance, pay tribute (or just say gidday, as I assume was the case with the King of Togo and the Church of Scientology) it was not that exciting. I would have stayed for the duration, because I’m happy looking and learning, but ActionMan was hot and bored and irritated, so we only lasted about half an hour. I didn’t mind, and I could have stayed with one of the girls if I’d wanted, so don’t hold it against him that after all the kerfuffle about going, we didn’t even stay.

Had I known more about it, I wouldn’t have insisted he come in the first place. Most teens probably would be bored sitting around in the heat watching something they didn’t understand, no matter how colourful. But this is where the bicultural parenting dilemma comes into play. The golden opportunity to experience the culture, not to be missed, etc. He doesn’t want to go but he might like it when he gets there (this is often true). Some white single parents don’t do much at all about giving their mixed children access to their African culture. Sometimes I wonder if I make the mistake of going too far in the other direction. It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d missed it. There is, after all, a lot more to African culture than festivals.

Like markets, which was our next stop that day. Kejetia was very quiet, it being a Sunday, and the store selling bows and arrows was closed. I was soooo disappointed. We had to settle for thongs (flip-flops) instead, which he really did need.

My picture didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped. This railway line running through the market makes me sad - especially the station, which is run down & just used for market stalls now. I did see a train on these tracks in '93, but woul dbe surprised if one could get through now. It's a pity, rail transport of people and freight would surely be a good thing for Ghana.

My picture didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped. This railway line running through the market makes me sad - especially the station, which is run down & just used for market stalls now. I did see a train on these tracks in '93, but woul dbe surprised if one could get through now. It's a pity, rail transport of people and freight would surely be a good thing for Ghana.

I also had the novel experience of a stall-holder asking if he could take my picture with his mobile phone. It seemed fair enough. After all, obrunis are pretty shutter-happy and we don’t always ask permission. Perhaps he asked because he’d seen me take a photo of ActionMan walking along the disused railway tracks that circle the market, and wanted to turn the tables. I’d wanted to capture the contrast between the muddy potholes and piles of second hand clothes, and a billboard in the background featuring a happy middle class nuclear family promoting a chocolate milk drink. It didn’t work out how I’d hoped.

I’m generally quite reticent about taking photos here and usually do ask people first, which is why I don’t have a lot of photos of markets, crowd scenes and odd sights. It feels intrusive and voyeuristic, treating people’s everyday lives, their poverty, their difference to me, their “otherness” as spectacle.

It’s one of the inherent contradictions and challenges of being a traveler from a ‘developed country’, that you are almost always in this position of voyeur. In countries like Germany it’s not such a problem, because there is more equality between our countries, but in places like Ghana you can rarely forget that almost every interaction you have with people is affected by the inequalities of wealth, status and opportunity. There are no easy answers I guess. I just try to keep all my interactions with people honest, friendly and real. So I didn’t charge him 2 Ghana Cedis for his photo.

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