The Asante (or Ashanti) are a Ghanaian people numbering about 1.5 million (about 15% of the population of Ghana) and centered in the city of Kumasi but also occupying the entire Ashanti region, which is bordered by Brong-Ahafo, western, central, and eastern regions. The Asante are members of the Akan language and cultural group (about 45% of the population of Ghana) which occupies much of central and southern Ghana and includes, in addition to the
Asante, the Adansi, the Agnyi, the Agona, Akim, the Akwamu, the Akwapem, the Bono, the Denkyira, the Fante, the Kwahu (all in Ghana), and the Baoulé of Côte d’Ivoire. Although these peoples have dialectic differences and some cultural differences, their strong cultural and linguistic similarities (Twi, of the Kwa language family) point to common ethnic origins, which have been strengthened by occasional political unities over the centuries.
Asante territory is primarily rain forest, lying just beyond the coastal region. Toward the south, the forest is lush and dense where it is not farmed; north of Kumasi, the forest gradually gives way to savannah. The major rains fall from May until October, with a brief break in late July or August; humidity is constant and high. In December and January, the harmattan winds blow down from the Sahara, and the air becomes parched and dusty. Rivers and streams are abundant; the soil is red laterite, which provides a good building material. Gold, bauxite, and timber are major natural resources for export; cocoa the major cash crop; and yams, cocoyams, maize, and cassava major consumer crops.
History and Political Structure
While their Akan ancestors were probably in the area of central and southern Ghana for several thousand years, the modern Asante are the descendants of the Asante empire, which was at its at peak during the 17th through the 19th centuries and was the largest and most powerful kingdom of the Guinea Coast, at one point controlling most of modern-day Ghana from the coast to Yendi, and including parts of what is now Côte d’Ivoire and Togo.
Although iron and agriculture were undoubtedly important factors in the development of civilizations in this region, iron probably becoming common by about 300 AD, it was surely the trade in gold to the Sudanic empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, beginning in the first millennium AD, which led to the eventual wealth and power of the Akan states. Asante gold was traded across the Sahara by these empires, along with kola nuts and ivory from the rain forest region.
Sometime during the 12th or 13th centuries, Akan-speaking people began to enter the region of modern Ghana. Some historians explain this as a migration from the disintegration of the Sudanic kingdoms to the north and from encroaching Islamic rule, though linguistics suggests a shared ancestry with other southern forest groups such as the Yoruba. In either case, independent villages, perhaps seeking control over the gold mining or the long distance trade (which came to include trade in slaves), began to combine into small states. By the 17th century, the Denkyera (or Denkyira) and Akwamu emerged as the most powerful of these, and after the wars of 1650 to 1670, the Denkyera reigned supreme. Osei Tutu, a nephew of the chief of Kumasi, was sent to Denkyera as a hostage along with regular annual tributes of gold and slaves. Osei Tutu became a general in the Denkyera army, but eventually revolted and fled back to Kumasi, where he succeeded to the Kumasi stool upon the death of the chief, about 1697. Kumasi and other subject kingdoms were being exhausted by their annual payments to Denkyera, and Osei Tutu determined to put an end to this. Sending the Denkyera tax collectors home without their hands, a declaration of war, he defeated the Denkyera army, captured and beheaded their king, and, with the advice and wisdom of his chief counselor and friend, the priest Okomfo Anokye, put together a loose confederation of kingdoms.
It is undoubtedly due to the brilliance of Okomfo Anokye that this loose confederation became such a powerful nation. As recorded in oral history, Anokye had Osei Tutu call together a great durbar of all the chiefs and royalty of the confederation. As the sky turned black and thunder rolled, a golden stool came floating down from the heavens and settled upon the lap of Osei Tutu. Anokye explained that this stool would now contain the soul of their nation and directed that everyone sacrifice to the stool. A medicine was made containing their hair and fingernail clippings, which they poured upon the stool and also drank, thus pledging their allegiance not to the Asantehene himself, but to this stool, the Golden Stool, which came to be the symbol of the new nation.
The Golden Stool is more than a mere symbol, however. To this day, it is kept in secrecy, only being brought out for the most sacred of occasions, such as at the enstoolment of a new king. No one sits on it; instead, it rests on its own stool. It never touches the ground, and Asantes believe that if the stool were ever to be harmed or taken, the nation would cease to exist.
Osei Tutu expanded the army, introduced a more formal organization which better protected the generals, and developed customs of integrating conquered states and their chiefs, gathering them annually at Kumasi to renew their allegiance to the Golden Stool and to celebrate the unity of the empire, a ceremony known as Odwira. Osei Tutu and his successor, Opoku Ware I, were responsible for further expansion, annexing the northern states of Bono, Gonja, and Dagomba. By 1750, at the death of Opoku Ware, the Asante controlled about 100,000 square miles and a population of two to three million. Osei Kwadwo, the fourth Asantehene, expanded Asante a bit further to the north, thus bringing many Moslems into the kingdom and instituting a period of religious tolerance, even appointing some Moslems to the court. Successive Asantehenes developed a large bureaucracy of professional administrators and craftspeople, as well as well-trained police and soldiers. The Kotoko was the highest council of elders, mostly local, and below them was a council of 200 omanhene, representatives and chiefs from throughout the federation.
Being inland, the Asante were not as directly affected by British living among them as were the coastal peoples, but they were certainly indirectly affected by their own involvement in the slave trade (both selling and buying; some scholars have attributed Asante power and wealth to their wide use of slave labor) and also by the influx of European goods throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. However, the first British to actually visit Kumasi were Thomas Bowdich and a British merchant-governor, John Smith. Bowdich was impressed by the Asante and their capital and wrote glowingly of the broad clean streets and the splendor of the royal palace and the Asantehene’s entourage. Nevertheless, the Asantehene, Osei Bonsu, rejected the idea of a resident British governor or missionaries. Smith’s successor, Charles McCarthy, and the next Asantehene, Osei Yaw, developed a far more militant relationship, resulting in 5 years of war, but the following British merchant-governor, George Maclean, again initiated a period of peaceful diplomacy, trade, and mutual respect.
The Dutch eventually left Cape Coast, amid some forged documents regarding the rights to Elmina, and the British, under the particularly racist Garnet Wolseley, established occupation of the coast and decided to invade Kumasi. The Asantehene, Kofi Kakari, wanted to take the war to the coast, rather than risk destruction of Kumasi, but the Queen Mother and many of the inner council advised peace. When Wolseley eventually demanded a payment of $6 million worth of gold plus the imprisonment of the Queen Mother and several others as hostages, the Asantes could not avoid war, but they were soundly defeated, and Wolseley’s army marched into Kumasi, looting and torching the entire city and the royal palace. When the Asantehene finally agreed to the British demand for gold, the shocked population demanded his resignation. With British encouragement, there were several attempted coups in Kumasi, and rivalries developed among the various states. By 1885, the Asante confederacy was a shambles, and only slowly rebuilt after 1894 by Osei Agyeman Prempeh I, perhaps aided by the introduction of rubber and cocoa production.
Despite Prempeh’s promises to accept a resident British governor in Kumasi and to submit to British authority, the British were determined to invade. In January of 1896, the British military marched into Kumasi and took captive the Asantehene, Agyeman Prempeh, the Queen Mother, and several other officials. They were imprisoned first at Elmina, then to Sierra Leone, and eventually to the Seychelles, where Prempeh stayed until 1924. The Golden Stool, however, had been carefully hidden and thus escaped the looting and destruction by the British soldiers that followed. British companies poured into the Asante region to mine gold and to extract lumber and rubber, all with the use of forced labor. When the British governor, Frederick Hodgson, finally visited Kumasi and demanded that the Golden Stool be brought out of hiding and that he be seated upon it, the Asantes had had enough. They began preparing for war at the urging of Yaa Asantewaa, the Queen Mother of Edweso. Although the Asante managed to imprison the British for quite some time in their own fort in Kumasi, British forces from the coast eventually retook the fort and destroyed Kumasi once again. Still, the Golden Stool remained unharmed.
There followed a time of relative peace, and eventually, in 1924, Prempeh I was returned to Kumasi, at first only as an ordinary citizen but ultimately ruling Asante until his death. His successor, Nana Osei Agyeman Prempeh II, was enstooled in 1935 and reigned until 1970, his funeral celebrated in the documentary film A Great Tree Has Fallen, by Roy Sieber. He was succeeded by Opoku Ware II, who reigned until his death in 1999, when the current Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, was enstooled.
Queen mothers, queen sisters, and other women in this matrilineal society have always had important roles in Asante politics, including specific offices in the royal court and the right to nominate the successor to the king. Other women, such as wives and consorts of the king and other ambitious women, have acted as advisors to the king and are expected to speak out in times of crisis or dissent.
The role of okyeame, sometimes translated as “linguist,” is also very important and carries much power. His task is more to present an artistic interpretation of the chief’s speech, and thus he can insert his own ideas and thoughts into his elaborations. Even beyond that, in speaking on behalf of the king, he can take liberties in guiding discussion. The Akan prefer indirectness in speech and thus avoid face-to-face encounters across social class lines, particularly in interaction with a chief. Consequently, the okyeame is often interpreting for both parties. He also often serves as a chief’s advisor and sometimes as a prosecutor or lawyer.
Traditional Asante economics have been based on three sources: farming, marketing, and craft production. Although these have shifted somewhat over time, all three remain important today. Subsistence swidden horticulture has been the mainstay of the Asante economy for many hundreds of years. The major staples are yams of various kinds, cocoyams, maize, cassava (manioc), oil palm, and plantains; and bananas, oranges, pineapples, beans, onions, tomatoes, okra, egusi, peppers, groundnuts, sweet potatoes, and many other fruits, vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants are grown widely. Since about 1900, cocoa has become the major export crop.
Many of these crops are interplanted, so that an outsider will not readily recognize an Asante farm. This promotes a balanced use of soil nutrients and allows tall plants, such as plantains, to shelter smaller, younger plants from the blazing sun and pounding rain. Most families have at least two plots of land, so that some can lie fallow while another is under cultivation. Nevertheless, the land is rich enough that fallow periods need not be long, and villages are therefore permanent. The traditional iron machete and short-handled hoe remain the major farm implements, though today they are seldom locally forged. Fishing has also long been important, and fresh and dried fish are a major source of protein. Goats, sheep, chickens, and guineas are also raised; cattle are rare because of tsetse. Traditionally, women did most of the farmwork; men helped clear land, but women did the planting, weeding, harvesting, and transporting. Still today, most women are farmers, but they also involve themselves in other enterprises, such as crafts or marketing, if they possibly can.
Asante markets are among the largest and most colorfUl in Africa, and many Asante also engage in long-distance trade. Although women have traditionally been the main farmers in West Africa, Asante women also excel as market traders. Most villages have weekly markets, and towns and cities have daily markets that provide occupations for women who have eschewed farming or who have no access to land. Markets in Asante always have a wealth of fresh fruits and vegetables for sale, as well as products made from local crops, such as cassava flour and gari, jars of rich red-orange palm oil, and jars of hand- or machine-ground nuts. Women also sell live chickens, eggs, and fresh fish; cooked food, such as kenkey and banku, fresh bread, and smoked fish; and packaged foods, which may be Ghanaian made or imported, such as cookies, gum, candy, yogurt, and dried plantain chips. Imported snacks, such as cookies, candy, and chips, have proliferated over the past few years, and along with soft drinks, Milo, powdered instant coffee, and dry cereal seem to be the most common foods in city supermarkets.
Other than food, the most visible products sold at Asante markets are cloth and clothing. Large markets, like Central Market in Kumasi, have lanes and lanes of cloth, locally tie-dyed and batiked, imported lace and synthetic cloth, but mostly the brilliant and infinitely patterned manufactured wax prints for which Ghanaians and other West Africans are famous. Traditional kente and adinkara are generally not sold in ordinary markets, but from individual producers in Bonwire, Ntonso, and elsewhere or in specialized crafts markets catering to tourists and exporters. Manufactured clothing such as men’s slacks and shirts, women’s blouses, underwear, and shoes, both new and used, are found in and around large markets. Markets are also a venue for other crafts, such as pottery, calabashes, and leather goods, and other production and services; for example, one can have a shirt made, a letter typed, or hair braided.
Market selling is hard work. The items women sell are large and heavy for their monetary value, and women generally must bring them to market in the dark hours of very early morning. They must sit or stand long hours, sometimes in the baking sun if they are not rich enough to pay rent on a covered stall.
Sometimes, they have daughters to send out into the market fringes or lanes to hawk small headloads of goods, but they also have infants or toddlers who must be tended while they work. They must bargain wisely and have good math skills, and they must calculate how much they are likely to sell in a day without having to haul too much home in the evening. Nevertheless, most women prefer trade to farm labor. It gets them into town where they encounter new products and new ideas; it provides them female companions to chat with away from the ears of family members; it affords them a freedom of movement and a privacy they are unlikely to have at home in their village; and it provides an income over which they have full control.
Men also participate in the markets, although in a less central way. They are often the means by which women bring goods to market, as haulers of handcarts and headloads and as drivers of trotros, taxis, and trucks. Traditionally, men sold gold, slaves, kola, and ivory, but these are not major items today. Men do sell other items in the markets, particularly traditional medicines, beads, fresh meat, metal items, furniture and other large wooden items, leather goods, sandals, and all manner of imported goods, such as cassettes, radios, wallets, watches, and new and used clothing.
A third economic activity very important to the Asante is their craft production. Much of this is for ordinary home use, such as axes, hoes, adzes, knives, and machetes; baskets and calabashes for carrying of ordinary goods; pottery for cooking, eating, and water storage; woodcarving for stools and household implements and furniture; and traditionally, bark cloth and simple weaving for ordinary cloth. Other items, however, are made for religious, festive, and political purposes, such as kente and adinkra cloths, gold jewelry and ornaments for royalty, drums, ceremonial stools, and the like. As in much of Africa, many crafts are traditionally gender specific. Gold, silver, bronze (or brass), and ironsmithing, as well as woodcarving, adinkra stamping, and kente weaving are done by men. Pottery is made by women, and women do much of the sewing, some contemporary dyeing, and some beadmaking. These and other arts will be discussed below.
The Asante are also active participants in local, regional, and international economic enterprises. Kumasi streets are lined with banks, communications centers, airline offices, restaurants, hotels, travel agencies, and supermarkets, and the Ashanti region is at the heart of the two major mainstays of the Ghanaian economy, gold mining and cocoa production. Cultural tourism also has the potential to become a significant enterprise. Although the coastal cities draw heritage tourists from the United States because of their slave fortresses, Kumasi is surrounded by villages and towns producing traditional arts, which have become emblematic of African culture throughout the diaspora, and those who venture inland to Kumasi find artistic vitality and warm hospitality.
The Asante, like other Akan peoples, are famously and proudly matrilineal. Although this does not translate to matriarchy, Asante men and women speak openly of the important roles women play in family life, the economy, and in the political structure, both presently and in the past.
The matrilineage has been one of the most important units of society in Asante, influencing social, religious, and political life. The inheritance of land and other property is traditionally through the matrilineal line, from a woman to her brother or sister or daughter, or from a man to his sister’s sons, as are the determination of social and political status. The abusua, or clan, thus form the core of a village, and its members hold rights to specific offices in village organization. As ancestors are a major focus of religious belief, matrilineages also become the locus of religious activity. The matrilineage also provides the foundation for strong family ties. Everyone remains close to their mothers, brothers and sisters are great confidants, and men, even when married, retain strong ties to their natal families and in the past carried much responsibility for their sisters and their sisters’ children.
Matrilineality may sometimes be accompanied by somewhat more equality for women than is found in patrilineal societies, and this seems to be true of the Asante. Although men’s and women’s realms are quite distinct, as is typical in Africa, women are important economically, politically, and religiously. Upon marriage, a woman expects to be given land from her husband’s lineage, and that land is to be used for growing food for the family. However, women also have rights to their own lineage land, the profits of which are at their own disposal, as are profits from raising chickens, craft production, and so on. Although today men are seen as “heads of households” in their conjugal families, mothers are generally closer to their children than are fathers, and mothers’ brothers may still play an important role in the education of their sisters’ children. Married women are expected to be faithful to their husbands, but married men are given considerably more leeway. Polygyny is still practiced to some extent, though often unofficially, since it is not seen as compatible with Christianity or with urban life. The law does not forbid polygyny, but neither does it recognize it in legal matters. When a husband dies, the wife who has been married legally (with a signed marriage certificate) is recognized as the inheritor.
Patrilineality also has its place in Asante culture: a child’s spirit comes from the father and his ntoro, a named patrilineal kin group, although the rites practiced by these groups seem to have waned. In contemporary society, perhaps because of the British school system, many or most people carry the surname of their father, and today land and material wealth are often passed along from fathers to their sons and daughters. It may also be that with increased mobility and the spreading prevalence of the nuclear family, men’s ties to their matrilineages are becoming less important and less effective than in the past.
Religion and Spiritual Life
Asante traditional religion includes a supreme creator, Nyame or Onyankopon, and a hierarchy of lesser spirits: atano, abosom, and mmoatia. Nearly all prayers begin with the invocation of Nyame, and his name is in many proverbs. Today, his name is used constantly when people express hopes or aspirations, “If God wills it,” and in proverbs, which today are used on textiles and pottery, as logos for stores or brands, such as Gye Nyame (literally “except God,” but meaning that nothing can be accomplished without God’s help), and in names of popular restaurants and shops, such as “God’s Love Refrigeration” or “God’s Grace Fast Food and Catering.” Asaase Yaa, or Mother Earth, is also frequently invoked in prayer and petitions.
The atano and abosom are lesser gods who reside in shrines throughout Asante. The shrines usually consist of a brass pan (of European origin) or a clay pot containing animal and plant materials and sacrificial materials, such as chicken blood and raw eggs, and the pan may rest on its own stool within a shrine house or temple or may be placed under or in the forks of a tree. Other items may accumulate in the shrine room, such as valuable family possessions or personal items of dead priests, and occasionally akuaba (see below), but figures are not made of the deities themselves, nor is figurative art an important part of the shrine. A home may have a special shrine room within the compound, with a white cloth over the door to warn away menstruating women.
The deities reveal themselves by possessing priests or priestesses, mediums through which people can approach the spirits for advice, curing, or other assistance. The priests and priestesses live at the fringes of society so that their interaction with supernatural beings would not interfere with ordinary people’s lives, and they are distinctive in their dress: raffia or white cloth skirts, bare feet, and long matted hair (also associated with insane people or, today, drug users). They also have a small group of followers who function as drummers, cooks, and general caretakers of the shrine.
Traditional priests had important and sometimes politically powerful relationships with chiefs. In some states, new deities could not be introduced without the approval of the chief, and priests judged to be charlatans could be killed at the command of the Asantehene. Priests and deities were consulted before military campaigns, often accompanied armies, and were rewarded with land, captives, and emblems of royalty, such as gold and umbrellas. Priests also accompanied chiefs and others on diplomatic missions. Although traditional priests don’t seem to serve in this capacity today, some of these important leadership roles may be being filled by important Christian religious leaders, such as Dr. Peter Kwasi Sarpong, the Archbishop of Kumasi and an anthropologist, who wields substantial political and cultural influence today, not just within Ghana but in the international sphere.
The ancestors are also important and revered, and they continue to influence life on earth. They are venerated, not worshipped, and respond to supplication in the form of prayer and libation. To become an ancestor, one must have led an exemplary life and had children, and one must have lived to an old age and died a natural death, rather than from suicide or certain dread diseases, such as smallpox, AIDS, or insanity.
Most ceremonies call for prayer and libation as means to establish a link or communication with God, ancestors, and other spirits. Prayers may include praise, thanks, and petitions for specific personal needs and for general community well-being. Minimally, a libation may be just a few drops of water or a bit of food dropped on the ground before a meal, but it might also be any kind of drinkable liquid, such as palm wine, soda, or schnapps; more substantially, a sacrifice may include eggs or chickens, or very rarely, sheep. Apparently, even human sacrifices were made in the past, particularly in situations such as the death of a chief, who must be accompanied by servants into the next world. Any adult, man or woman, can offer prayers, libations, or sacrifices, although for major occasions, these are led by a chief, a priest, or the head of a household or lineage. Similarly, while simple prayers and libations may be offered anywhere, major prayers and sacrifices are made on stools, in shrines, or under sacred trees.
Two ceremonies merit special mention: the Adae and Odwera. Adae, held every 21 days, celebrates the ancestors of chiefs and other royalty. The more serious part of the ceremony is held in the sacred stool house of the palace, where the chief priest offers food and drinks to each ancestor at his or her stool and asks their blessings for the community, while the public gathers outside for music, dancing, and recitation of the oral history of the royal family. Odwera, an annual celebration perhaps instituted by Osei Tutu I, is celebrated in September for community purification. Prayers for forgiveness are made, shrines are cleaned and purified, a black hen is sacrificed, and the entire community, living and dead, shares a feast to begin the new year cleansed.
Asante religion underwent rapid change in the early days of colonialism. With the government weakened, people turned to new cults, priests, and protective talismans adopted from neighboring cultures, perhaps as a response to the failed government of Kofi Kakari, the fall of Kumasi, the exile of Asantehene Prempeh I, and the eventual annexation of Asante by the British. Some of the new priests had spiritual powers, which they could place in talismans, or asuman, which can be hung in doorways as protection from theft or wrapped in leather (and sometimes gold foil) and sewn on batakari, cotton smocks imported from the north. Although often called “warrior shirts” or “hunter shirts,” as they are believed to protect warriors from injury in battle, they were also worn by chiefs and even the Asantehene.
Today, most Asantes are Christians, and Sunday mornings find cities and villages filled with congregants heading to churches of every major and minor Christian denomination as well as to nondenominational churches. Many are also Muslim, but neither religion necessarily replaces traditional beliefs. Asante religion has always been dynamic, as suggested by the influx of new deities in the precolonial and early colonial times, and it remains so today, so that people may be devout Catholics in their ordinary thought, speech, and practice and yet may still deeply adhere to the religious beliefs that are inherent to Asante tradition and culture.
The Life Cycle
Asante life begins with a naming ceremony, which marks the beginning of personhood. All Asante and other Akan are named for the day on which they are born (for example, Kwasi or Akosua for Sunday, Kwabena or Abena for Tuesday, Kofi or Afua for Friday, and so on). The father also chooses a name for an infant, usually the name of someone he wishes to honor, and on the eighth day, the father’s sister bestows this name on the child with prayers, asking for health, wisdom, and a long life and admonishing the child to be truthful and hardworking. Today, Christian ministers often take over this role. The naming ceremony marks entrance into society, and the child is given a symbol of their gender role in life, for example, a basket for a girl or a machete for a boy. Other names are given that refer to circumstances of birth (twins, for example, or birth order) or to events occurring near the time of birth (a festival day, for example, or a death). Individuals can also add names later in life, for example, a person becoming Christian or Moslem may wish to take a name denoting that a new chief can take the stool name of some predecessor, and today a woman may take up her husband’s surname upon marriage.
Puberty rites were celebrated only for girls. The onset of menstruation was celebrated with a week of feasting, singing, and dancing. The girl was seated formally in a public place and received gifts from her parents and the community, and the elderly women counseled her about sexual matters and other wifely responsibilities. From this time forward, she was expected to spend her menstrual periods in a special menstrual house at the fringe of the village and follow many taboos, such as not visiting stool houses, not selling cooked food, and not cooking for her husband. Both these customs and the nubility ceremony itself seem to have been discarded, at least among more educated families. Girls object to being publicly displayed with their breasts exposed, but as elsewhere where puberty customs are fading, many elders feel this has led to promiscuity and adolescent pregnancy. As a consequence, some Christian churches have instituted a blessing ceremony for girls, which may include Bible lessons, gift giving by their congregations, and special blessings and prayers.
Formerly, girls were expected to marry soon after puberty, and marriages were and are considered a union not just of two individuals but also of two families. Cross-cousin marriages were encouraged, parallel-cousin marriages forbidden, and polygyny and the levirate were practiced. Girls could be betrothed in infancy or even before their birth, and twin girls were promised to chiefs, but none of these are common practices today. The marriage ceremony itself consists of a series of gifts to members of the bride’s family, including money, gold, cloth, underwear, drinks, and, today, a Bible. The first is the “knocking” fee, which is followed by the bride price itself, then special gifts to the bride’s father, her mother, and her brothers; the women of the family; the girl’s church or household deity; and finally, a special gift to the bride herself, in order to buy items for their married life. Today, many people also have court weddings and Christian church weddings, neither of which permit polygyny. Church weddings are usually followed by a large dinner party the next day.
Another religious ceremony practiced by Asante is soul-washing. A person’s soul sometimes needs to be pacified after being offended or following some crisis, such as recovery from a terrible illness or escape from a dangerous accident. The celebrant bathes, cuts and cleans his or her nails, dresses in perfumed white cloth, sits before a brass pan with water and white clay, and with offerings of mashed yam, eggs, and liver from a sheep or fowl, apologizes to the personal spirit, asks forgiveness, and asks for blessings for himself, his family, and his people. Finally, the celebrant dips adwera leaves in the clay water and sprinkles it on the gathered family to show that their souls are also purified.
Funerals are the most elaborate of Asante ceremonies. Upon death, the in-laws provide items needed for cleansing the body and burial, such as soap, white cloth and clothing, white beads (for a woman), and a pillow and blanket. Traditionally the dead were buried within 3 days of death, though today bodies may be kept at a mortuary until the time of the funeral. During the procession to the cemetery, the widow or widower would be given a clay pot to throw, indicating that he or she was no longer married. Neither a widow nor a widower were permitted to sleep alone for 6 weeks, and they followed various food restrictions. A widow and her children were looked after by her husband’s successor for a year; at the end of the year, she could choose to marry him and remain with the family or she was also free to marry someone else. A widower was free to marry at the end of the 6-week period.
The funeral itself takes place quite some time after the death, because the funeral requires much preparation. Palm wine must be gathered, the funeral grounds prepared, and guests informed. On the day of the funeral, friends and family members gather from noon on, wearing black or other dark colors. The chief female mourners wear red or red and black. They dance up and down the street or funeral grounds several times before being seated to receive the mourners. It is common for there to be hundreds of mourners, and each of them will greet the family (single file, counterclockwise, extending only the right hand, as in all Asante formal greeting). They will be offered drinks and will themselves send up donations of money to the family to help defray the expenses. These gifts are announced, and someone from the bereaved family will thank the donor. At the climax of the celebration, in-law families of the deceased display huge trays of special goods, such as kente cloth, red-and-black cloth, beads, traditional sandals, and silk. These trays of goods are danced up to the family with the accompaniment of drummers. Male relatives may be expected to provide a ram, parts of which become food for the ancestors and are buried in the grave and parts of which may be burned to create soot for the blackening of the deceased’s stool if he or she were an officeholder.
Arts in the Life of Asante
In addition to their intriguing political history, the Asante are also celebrated for the splendor and variety of their arts, many of which are becoming popular in the diaspora even as their traditional religious importance may sometimes seem to be diminishing.
As in all West African cultures, the arts serve at least three overlapping functions: religious, royal, and mundane. Religious arts include shrine houses, shrine figures, stools, akua’ba, and funerary items, such as adinkra (or adinkara) cloth. Shrine figures are rarely seen by outsiders today, except in museums, as shrines themselves are small and private. A few traditional shrines have been preserved by the government and have been rebuilt according to old drawings and photographs, but most old shrines have fallen into decay, and newer shrines are small, secluded, and not welcoming of visitors.
Stools may be ordinary, religious, or political. At one level, an Asante stool is simply something that a person sits upon and is especially brought out for elders or guests. Such stools have small lugs at the sides for easy carrying, and people can carry their stools along when visiting nearby. This mundane use, however, is being replaced by the ubiquitous plastic stacking chair in villages near cities. Stools have a rectangular base and a rectangular seat curving up at the sides. The important design is in the center, and it may be a carved geometric symbol, an animal, or a simple design.
The akua’ba (Wednesday’s child) may also be con-sidered a religious item, as its original purpose was to appeal to the deities to promote pregnancy in the woman who is carrying it. The story is that there was a woman, Akua, who badly wanted a child, as do all Akan women. A priest instructed her to have a small image carved and to carry that image and care for it as she would a child. Akua did so and, despite teasing, became pregnant. Today, many women still use the figure, sometimes adorned with beads and earrings, either to cure barrenness or to ensure the safe birth, health, and beauty of the child. Akua’ba are also sometimes used as shrine figures or as memorials for a dead child. Typically, the akua’ba has a flat disk-shaped head, arched eyebrows, small facial features, a ringed neck, a small cylindrical body with tiny breasts and navel, and short, plain, horizontal arms. In the past, terra-cotta figures and heads of both male and female royalty were used for funeral purposes (not burial), but these do not seem to be made any longer.
Adinkra cloth is visible at any festival and has become popularized in the West, perhaps because of the appeal of the symbols. Traditional black adinkra cloth is still made by dyeing the cloth with wood and then inking it with small stamps carved from calabash shells. The black cloth is spread on a board and divided into sections with a four- to six-toothed comb dipped in ink. Each section is then stamped with a single design, but the sections may all have the same design, or the designs may vary from section to section. These designs, used in other Asante arts and especially popular now on factory cloth and flowerpots, for business signs and stationery, generally represent proverbs, such as “Look back to your ancestors” (Sankofa) or “Two brothers should not argue over food” (two crocodiles crossed, sharing the same stomach). These proverbs, as symbols or words, appear in many other Asante arts. While all black or black-and-red cloth is used for most funerals, white cloth with black designs may be used for festive occasions and for funerals of elders.
One must also acknowledge the adaptation of traditional art forms to Christian contexts. Churches are decorated with traditional Asante symbols and cloth, and people wear kente and adinkra cloth to church. Dr. Peter Sarpong has been a powerful advocate for traditional arts and culture and a pioneer in integrating traditional music, dance, and libation into Catholic life, ceremony, and worship.
All African kingdoms and states have engaged the arts for political purposes, but the Asante have excelled in the variety and high visibility of their royal arts. The Golden Stool, discussed above, is certainly the most revered aesthetic symbol of the Asante nation, but there are many other emblems of state in Asante, both of The State and of the member states of the Asante federation. Every chief and high-ranking official has a ceremonial stool of carved wood embellished with silver and gold, bells, amulets, and sometimes a central gold or silver “soul disk.” The basic designs of ceremonial stools carry messages, which may be particular to the chief or chiefdom or may have broader use. For example, a circular shape, the “circular rainbow,” represents the unity of all Asante peoples under the Asantehene; the “wisdom knot” indicates that the chief will rule through wisdom rather than force; and a two-level design indicates variously that a paramount chief has authority over other chiefs or that chiefly power rests upon the power of the people’s will.
In addition to royal stools, chiefs at various levels carry state swords and flywhisks, appear under ornate cloth umbrellas and large fans, may be carried in palanquins, are accompanied by linguists (okyeame) carrying staffs topped with golden emblems, wear kente cloth, sandals, and crowns with golden ornaments and a prodigious amount of gold jewelry. The Asantehene is said to wear so many gold bracelets that he cannot lift his arms and so must be accompanied by aides on each side carrying his arms. All of these items are not only splendid in themselves—the glitter of the gold and the brilliant colors and patterns of kente cloth—but all of them bear symbols that are immediately recognizable to every citizen. The symbols may be simple human or animal figures, such as crossed crocodiles, or may be geometric, but they represent proverbs and other words of wisdom relating to the behavior of the chief or the citizenry. All of these arts are made by specialists, and all of them are men who generally inherit the right and the training matrilineally.
Each of these arts is worthy of an entry in itself, but kente cloth may be the most familiar to Westerners and has indeed been the subject of much research by artists and anthropologists. The origins of kente are obscured in distant history, but one legend is that men were taught to weave by Ananse the spider, a culture hero who is probably the ancestor of America’s Br’er Rabbit. Kente is a very complex and tightly woven fabric made on a typical West African men’s narrow horizontal loom. Early cloths were of indigo and white cotton, but imported silks and eventually rayon in every color have been incorporated and are now considered traditional. Each 4″-wide kente strip consists of a series of patterns, each usually about 3″ to 4″ long, and usually, today, alternating. When many dozens of these strips are sewn together at the selvages, the effect is a checkerboard of patterns, with the ends usually having more and perhaps more complex designs. Each color carries meaning, and each of hundreds of individual patterns also has meanings, often relating to proverbs or having other political references. Even the way the wearer wraps the cloth around his body carries meaning, such as humility or arrogance or the bearing of a gift. In earlier times, chiefs and kings reserved certain patterns for their own use, and indeed kente was used only by royals or given by them as gifts. Today, however, most people who can afford to purchase a cloth do, and wear them for special occasions, such as religious festivals, weddings, or simply fancy parties. To the chagrin of many elders, kente strips are now exported to decorate American graduation robes or baseball caps, and kente-like designs are machine printed on cheap commercial cloth and made into bags, shirts, and other tourist items.
Perhaps no arts can properly be called “ordinary,” but the Asante make many arts or crafts for every day use. Women make pottery in a huge variety of shapes for various purposes, such as grinding spices, carrying and storing water, and steaming gari, as well as for cooking and eating. Many villages still fire pots on open wood fires, but others use charcoal-fired kilns instead of or in addition to them. Men carve wooden drums, thumb pianos, and other instruments; bowls and tool handles; and a multitude of tourist items, such as awari games, inventive nontraditional masks, and salad bowls. Tie-dye and batik, using beeswax and candle stubs, hand-carved wooden or foam stamps, and commercial dyes have become popular arts encouraged by government and nongovernmental agencies, and people in remote villages wear and sell beautiful hand-dyed fabric.
Bronze and brass, generally cast but also hammered, were traditionally used for forowa and kuduo, containers used for gold dust, money, pomades, and other valuables and also, famously, for “gold-weights,” tiny figures and symbols made of brass but used to weigh gold. Today, these weights have evolved into a variety of objects, such as hollow beads modeled after earlier gold beads worn by chiefs, bracelets, pendants, bottle openers, nativity scenes, and sometimes quite remarkable sculpture. These items are made by lost-wax casting, a process that can take many days, as the item is first modeled of beeswax, and then an investiture must be built up of many layers, first of a charcoal slip and then of clay mixed with palm nut fiber. When the mold is finally dry, the firing is done on an open-air “kiln” enclosed only on three sides, and the mold must be shattered to remove the cast piece, so that each piece is unique. Like other metal arts in Africa and the world, bronze casting has been traditionally restricted to men, though there is at least one young woman presently casting.
Bead making is another art elevated in recent years to great popularity, both for local use and for broad export. Although most “African trade beads” were actually Italian imports (such as the millefiori beads from Murano), Asantes today pulverize old bottle glass, color it with dyes, and bake it in molds to produce beads of many shapes, colors, and patterns. Traditionally and still used as waist beads by women and seen only by their husbands, these beads have caught the fancy of Westerners and are now sold widely, strung on raffia or cotton string, at bead markets in Kumasi, Koforidua, and Accra.
Asante dancing and music, particularly drumming, are other ancient arts that remain popular today in both traditional and contemporary settings as well as in the diaspora. The same drums played in traditional villages for ceremonies are now found in Christian churches and at national political events, and young people learn traditional dancing in schools and universities. Highlife (or earlier, “palm wine guitar”) music, which had its origin in late 19th-century Ghana, and is sometimes considered a form of jazz, became enormously popular throughout urban West Africa in the 1920s into the 1970s, and it remains influential in the 21st century in forms such as hiphop and reggae.
With their wealth of art forms, it may be surprising that the Asante have no history of mask making, even though many of their close neighbors make them and perhaps especially since their very close relatives, the Baoule in Cote d’lvoire, are renowned for the beauty and variety of their mask forms. It may be that in Asante, masks were avoided because masked figures could have been viewed as discordant with the power and prestige of royalty, or that the priests and priestesses were so powerful that deities did not need masked impersonators, or that the Asante lacked the initiation societies and secret societies that so often use masks and masquerades in other African cultures.
The Asante have entered the 21st century a proud and flourishing people. They have maintained many of their traditional beliefs and values, and they are proud of their rich history. Though they suffered under the years of colonialism, they emerged at the heart of the nation that led Africa into independence. Their magnificent arts, sought by collectors and major museums the world over, have become symbols of the nation of Ghana and sometimes as symbols of unity for diasporic Africans everywhere. Their warm hospitality, their proud history, their flourishing arts, and the economic and political stability of the region are beacons to business people, visitors, and scholars from around the world.
- Adler, P., & Barnard, N. (1992). African majesty: The textile art of the Ashanti and Ewe. London: Thames & Hudson.
- Allman, J., & Victoria Tashjian, V. (2000). “I will not eat stone”: A women’s history of colonial Asante. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- Berry, S. S. (2000). Chiefs know their boundaries: Essays on property, power, and the past in Asante, 1896-1996.
- Kwadwo, O. (2002). A handbook on Asante culture. Kumasi, Ghana: Cita Press.
- McCaskie, T. C. (2000). Asante identities: History and modernity in an African village, 1850-1950. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Mendonsa, E. L. (2002). West Africa: An introduction to its history, civilization, and contemporary situation. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
- Yankah, K. (1995). Speaking for the chief: Okyeame and the politics ofAkan royal oratory. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.