Asante (Ashanti) History Much of the modern nation of Ghana
Ghanians come from six main ethnic groups: the Akan (Ashanti and Fanti), the Ewe, the Ga-Adangbe, the Mole-Dagbani, the Guan, and the Gurma.
The Ashanti tribe of the Akan are the largest tribe in Ghana and one of the few matrilineal societies in West Africa. Once renown for the splendour and wealth of their rulers, they are most famous today for their craft work, particularly their hand-carved stools and fertility dolls and their colourful kente cloth. Kente cloth is woven in bright, narrow strips with complex patterns; it’s usually made from cotton and is always woven outdoors, exclusively by men.
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 budget.
Twi is a linguistic term designating a language which belongs to the Akan branch of the Kwa subfamily of the Niger-Congo language family (Greenberg 1966: 8; Manoukian 1950: 10). The Twi-speaking peoples, who are concentrated in southern Ghana (formerly the British colony of the Gold Coast), include the Akwamu, the Akwampim (Akuapem), the Akyem (Akim), the Asen-Twifo, the Ashanti (Asante), the Fanti, the Kwahu, and the Wasa.
The Ashanti constitute a political confederacy or state which developed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the central part of southern Ghana, West Africa (ca. lat. 6 degrees-7 degrees 30 minutes N and long. 0 degrees-2 degrees W). According to Fortes, the Ashanti state was created and maintained by war, and a military ideology remained a central feature of its cultural orientation to the end. Before its annexation by the British in 1901, this state was a confederation of nine originally autonomous founding chiefdoms and a number of subsequently incorporated communities. At the center of the state was the wealthy and powerful chiefdom of Kumasi, whose hereditary ruler was acknowledged as the Asantehene, that is, the head of the nation, or king.
Stool (sika ‘gua) was created as the politico-ritual symbol of unity, and was believed to embody the spirit or soul of the Ashanti nation.
In fact, it was an attempt by British officials to confiscate the Golden Stool (based on ignorance of its true significance) that precipitated the so-called War of the Golden Stool in 1900-1901, resulting in the defeat of the Ashanti and their final incorporation into the British colonial system.
The Ashanti Confederacy covered an area of about 24,560 square miles.
If early population estimates are at all accurate, the Ashanti population has expanded significantly during the twentieth century. The population was estimated at about 250,000 around 1900, at approximately 578,000 in 1931, and at over 822,000 in 1950 (Fortes 1969: 140;
1950: Busia 1951: 165; and Steel 1948). The 1960 census lists a total population of 895,360 (Kaplan et al. 1971: 88).
Throughout the Ashanti area the climate is tropical, with an annual mean temperature of over 80 degrees F. There are two distinct seasons, a rainy season from about April to November, and a dry season the rest of the year. The average annual rainfall around Kumasi, the former Ashanti capital, is 57 inches, but there are considerable annual variations.
Despite this tropical setting, Ashanti territory is divided into two quite different ecological zones, northern and southern. The northern zone is drier and is characterized by a savannah-forest type of vegetation, with stunted trees scattered over large expanses of grasslands. The natural vegetation of the southern zone consists of high forest, but little virgin forest now remains. The most common vegetation today is that of the cultivated plots of cacao (cocoa) trees and the natural growth of brush on formerly cultivated land.
These differing ecological zones have given rise to contrasting types of agriculture. In the north the main subsistence and cash crop is yams, followed by guinea corn; by 1950 there still had not been any large-scale development of export crops. In the south, a much larger variety of subsistence crops is grown, including especially yams, cocoyams, manioc, and maize. Also, there has been widespread development of major commercial crops such as the kola-nut and particularly cocoa.
In fact, cocoa farming has become the main economic activity in the southern zone.
The Ashanti are noted for their expertise in a variety of specialized crafts. These include weaving, wood carving, ceramics, and metallurgy.
Of these crafts, only pottery-making is primarily a female activity; the others are restricted to male specialists. Even in the case of pottery-making, only men are allowed to fashion pots or pipes representing anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figures.
Weaving is a highly developed craft, with dozens of standardized and named textile designs. Stamped cloth is also made. Traditionally, pottery was hand-molded since the use of the wheel was unknown. Wood carving is divided into many branches, each with its own specialists.
Among the major products are wooden sculptures of outstanding artistic quality and the talking-drums (ntumpane). The famous wooden “stools” are symbolic and ritual objects rather than items of furniture. “In Ashanti, a generation or so ago, every stool in use had its own special name which denoted the sex, or social status, or clan of the owner” (Rattray 1927: 271).
One of the most specialized crafts is metallurgy. Traditionally, Ashanti metal smiths seem to have worked in iron, brass, bronze, silver, and gold. Agricultural implements and other metal utensils were made of iron. Brass (and evidently bronze) were used for one of the most widely known artistic products, gold weights (mrammue), which were cast in geometric, human, or animal forms, or in forms representing inanimate objects. The lost-wax process was utilized in their manufacture. Although these objects are now mainly of interest to art collectors, their original function was practical—they were standard weights representing a quantity of gold dust. Trade in gold and slaves was among the key economic bases of the traditional Ashanti state (Rattray 1923: 253, 302, 306, 316; Rattray 1927: 271, 301-02).
The Ashanti have a high national pride and social vitality, and have maintained their principal traditional values and institutions. When the Ashanti Confederacy was restored by the Gold Coast government in 1935, a total of 21 constituent chiefdoms, designated as “divisions,” was recognized. These divisions consist of Kumasi, Mampong, Juaben, Bekwai, Essumeja, Kokofu, Nsuta, Adansi, Kumawu, Offinsu, Ejisu, Agona, Banda, Wenchi, Mo, Abeasi, Nkoranza, Jaman, Berekum, Techiman, and Dorma.
Cross-cutting these political units is a system of eight major, exogamous, matrilineal sibs (abusua), which are ranked hierarchically, with the royal sib at the top. The localized matrilineage tracing descent from a known common female ancestor for a period of 10 to 12 generations is the basic unit for political, legal, and ritual purposes. Succession and inheritance rules stress sex, generation, and age, with men having precedence over women, “brothers” over “sisters’ sons,” and senior over junior. Consistent with the emphasis on matrilineal descent is the fact that the system of kinship terminology is of the Crow type.
Contrary to the views of some earlier writers, the Ashanti do not have a true double descent system. While there are groupings in which membership is transmitted patrilineally, these are neither exogamous nor corporate groups, nor are jural or political rights or duties derived from paternal descent. What is involved is the concept of ntoro, the male transmitted ntoro (spirit) which forms a unique spiritual bond between father and son. Following this principle, every person belongs to one of a limited number of named quasi-ritual categories, the ntoro divisions. Members of the same ntoro division are required to observe certain taboos, perform certain rituals, and are believed to have some common personality characteristics.
Marriage restrictions include matrilineal sib exogamy and a prohibition on marriage between the descendants of a man in the male line up to the fourth generation. The ideal marriage is with either cross-cousin, although there is a preference, for men, for marriage with a mother’s brother’s daughter (wofa ba). Again, marriage with a member of one’s own village or chiefdom is preferred to marriage with an “outsider.”
Polygyny is permitted, but in modern times at least, some 80 percent of all married man have only one wife at a time. Chiefs may have a large number of wives, but commoners rarely have more than three at the same time.
Data are not readily available concerning the average population size of the Ashanti communities, but it is clear that during recent years there has been a marked increase in the number of towns and in their size. In 1911 only Kumasi, the Ashanti capital, had a population of more than 2,000, whereas by 1948 as many as 40 towns exceeded this number. Kumasi itself is estimated to have had a population of about 10,000 in the nineteenth century; this had increased to over 70,000 by 1948 (Steel 1948: 74).
Every long-established Ashanti village or township was until recently divided into wards or sections (brono), in each of which the majority of the residents were members of a single matrilineage. In a large town such as Wenchi (capital of Wenchi Division, population 5,310 in 1931), each section consisted of several lineages. But again, each lineage inhabited a particular area of the section, and the houses of the lineage members were grouped closely together around the house of the lineage head (Busia 1951: 3).
Domestic organization long remained one of the most ambiguous aspects of Ashanti social structurre. It was Fortes who finally delineated the key structural principles and processes through his research in the 1940s in the communities of Asokore and Agogo.
He succinctly characterizes the situation in the following passage:
“The most striking feature of Ashanti domestic life appears vividly in one of the common sights in any village or township. As night falls young boys and girls can be seen hurrying in all directions carrying large pots of cooked food. One can often see food being carried out of a house and a few minutes later an almost equal amount of food being carried into it. The food is being taken by the children from the houses in which their mothers reside to those in which their fathers live (Fortes 1949: 63-64).
Actually, three major household types may be distinguised, each based on a different residence pattern. First are households grouped around an effective minimal matrilineage or part of it, such as a woman and her sister or daughters, or a man and his sister or sister’s son; such households are based on duolocal residence, with a husband and wife living apart in different domestic units; about 62 percent of the households in Agogo were of this type. Second are households consisting of a man, his wife, and their children, sometimes including other kinsfolk; this type of patrilocal or virilocal unit constituted about 22 percent of the households in Agogo. Finally, there are households made up of combinations of the previous types (e.g. a man, his wife and children, plus his sister’s children. Often these reflect an avunculocal residence pattern. The matrilineal domestic group is usually preponderant in the larger communities, while virilocal or patrilocal households are the most common type in small farming villages or hamlets. But all three “types” should be viewed simply as phases in a domestic cycle. In the early years of marriage, residence is predominantly duolocal, but with the passage of time this could shift to avunculocal or patrilocal/virilocal. Thus the composition of a domestic group would evolve over time.
The Ashanti have a complex religious system involving elaborate ceremonies, ancestor worship, the ntoro concept and ritual, witchcraft and sorcery, beliefs in many kinds of spirits, divination, shamans, and so forth.
According to Service, the greatest and most frequent religious ceremonies are those whose purpose is to recall the spirits of the departed rulers, offer them food and drink, and ask their favor for the good of all the people. These ceremonies, called the Adae, occur every 21 days.
Funeral and mourning rites are also important. Islam has had little success among the Ashanti. Christianity has been more successful, although Busia (1951: 195) estimated the total number of Christians to be less than 20 percent of the population in the early 1940s.
The classic authority on the Ashanti is Rattray (1923, 1927, 1929), a British Army captain turned ethnographer. His monographs form the basis of our knowledge of Ashanti ethnography. He did extensive field research through much of the Ashanti area in the 1920s.
The Ewé have over 600 deities to turn to in times of need. Many village celebrations and ceremonies take place in honour of one or more deities. Tehy also weave kente cloth, and their more geometrical patterns contain symbolic designs handed down through the ages.
The Ewe occupy southeastern Ghana and the southern parts of
neighboring Togo and Benin. Most Ewe were farmers who kept
some livestock, and there was some craft specialization. On
the coast and immediately inland, fishing was important, and
local variations in economic activities permitted a great
deal of trade between one community and another, carried out
chiefly by women
The Fanti tribe are mainly located in the coastal areas of Ghana
The Ga-Adangbe people inhabit the Accra Plains. The Adangbe are found to the east, the Ga groups, to the west of the Accra coastlands. Although both languages are derived from a common proto-Ga-Adangbe ancestral language, modern Ga and Adangbe are mutually unintelligible. The modern Adangbe include the people of Shai, La, Ningo, Kpone, Osudoku, Krobo, Gbugble, and Ada, who speak different dialects. The Ga also include the Ga-Mashie groups occupying neighborhoods in the central part of Accra, and other Gaspeakers who migrated from Akwamu, Anecho in Togo, Akwapim, and surrounding areas.
The Guan are believed to have begun to migrate from the Mossi region of modern Burkina around A.D. 1000. Moving gradually through the Volta valley in a southerly direction, they created settlements along the Black Volta, throughout the Afram Plains, in the Volta Gorge, and in the Akwapim Hills before moving farther south onto the coastal plains. Some scholars postulate that the wide distribution of the Guan suggests that they were the Neolithic population of the region. Later migrations by other groups such as the Akan, Ewe, and Ga-Adangbe into Guan-settled areas would then have led to the development of Guan-speaking enclaves along the Volta and within the coastal plains.
Words of the Ghana National Anthem
God bless our homeland Ghana
And make our nation great and strong,
Bold to defend forever
The cause of Freedom and of Right;
Fill our hearts with true humility,
Make us cherish fearless honesty,
And help us to resist oppressors’ rule
With all our will and might evermore.
Hail to thy name, O Ghana, To thee we make our solemn vow:
Steadfast to build together
A nation strong in Unity;
With our gifts of mind and strength of arm, Whether night or day, in the midst of storm, In ev’ry need, whate’er the call may be, To serve thee, Ghana, now and evermore.
Raise high the flag of Ghana
And one with Africa advance;
Black star of hope and honor
To all who thirst for liberty;
Where the banner of Ghana free flies,
May the way to freedom truly lie;
Arise, arise, O sons of Ghanaland,
And under God march on for evermore!
The Ashanti are noted for their expertise in a variety of specialized crafts. These include weaving, wood carving, ceramics, and metallurgy. Of these crafts, only pottery-making is primarily a female activity; the others are restricted to male specialists. Even in the case of pottery-making, only men are allowed to fashion pots or pipes representing anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figures.