Akan proverb-images in Ghana’s national museum

In March 2001 I spent a couple of weeks in Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa. On several days I explored downtown Accra on foot, talking to local people, and spent a good part of two days at the National Museum. This essay focuses on displays that illustrate the Ghanian tradition of encapsulating local proverbs in images or symbols.

Ghana's national museum

School group visiting Ghana's small national museum in Accra.

THE ACCOMPANYING PHOTOS were taken at Ghana’s National Museum, in Accra. I paid a photographic permit for still photography, and used a Nikon Coolpix 950 digital camera.

The National Museum of Ghana is small, and not well known by the Ghanaian public. Taxi-drivers are inevitably unaware of its location: it’s best to tell them that it is next to to ‘Edvy’s’ — a restaurant which operates as a concession within the museum grounds! The museum consists of a circular central gallery surrounded by an outer ring. Built over the outer gallery is a first-floor gallery, from the balcony of which this photo was taken.

Incidentally, photography at the museum is permitted, if you pay for a permit for the day. The cost of the permit is very reasonable. At the time I was carrying a Fuji medium format rangefinder camera for 120 rollfilm, and a Nikon Coolpix 950 digital camera. These photos were taken with the Nikon.

The focus of the museum is anthropology and culture, archaeology and history. A large proportion of the visitors are in school tour groups such as the party shown here. The museum gets by on a tiny budget, as the curator Joseph Seini Gazari explained to me: they would love to be able to publish small books about Ghanaian archaeology, history and culture, but they lack the equipment and skills to do so, and as far as I know they still have no Web site. I would have liked to have been able to help them.

Akan stools

An Akan stool carved with the popular motif Sankofa

An Akan stool carved with the popular motif Sankofa.

The major ethnic group in Ghana is the Akan, who speak the Twi language and who historically have been organised into clan statelets, sometimes grouped into confederacies. In the last few centuries the most powerful confederacy has been the Ashanti, which originated as an alliance under Osei Tutu in 1701 to overthrow Denkyira rule. The Ashanti paramount chief is called the Asantahene.

Traditionally, the stools of Akan people have been regarded as becoming imbued with their spirit; after the death of a leader, his or her stool will be ceremonially blackened, and thereafter offered regular libations and sacrifices.

The kind of stool one is permitted is also an indicator of rank. A chief’s stool is more than just a seat: it is his symbol of power and in traditional rule had the kind of constitutional status that ‘The Crown’ has in Britain. At the enstoolment of the aforementioned Osei Tutu, it is said that his friend and adviser the priest Okomfo Anokye caused a Golden Stool to descend miraculously, and declared it to hold the sumsum (soul) of the whole nation. Never allowed to touch the ground or be sat upon, the Golden Stool (a wooden stool, but covered all over with gold) was venerated as the central symbol of the Ashanti confederacy until their final defeat by the British in 1900.

The body or central support of a stool may be carved into a form representing one of the Akan proverb-symbols. The stool shown here features the popular symbol Sankofa, a bird touching its back with its beak, sometimes holding a small fruit or seed. This symbolises turning back and making amends so as to start over in life. ‘It is OK to make a fresh start in life, so long as you recognise and learn from your mistakes.’

Umbrella tops and adinkra generally

Umbrella top

Example of an ntuatire or umbrella top.

Each chief is accompanied by the bearer of a ceremonial umbrella or parasol, at the top of which is a small symbolic carving, the ntuatire, usually wrapped in gold leaf. These too are typically examples of Akan proverb-symbols.

The example shown here is carved into another very popular motif which represents the proverb Funtumfunafu denkyemfunafu, won afuru bom, nso woredidi a na woreko. (‘Though they share one stomach, they still fight over food.’) This proverb will be quoted to indicate disapproval of arguments within the family; or, more generally, it can warn of the need for unity among people who share a common destiny.

The collective name for these kinds of visual representations of proverbs and aphorisms, adinkra, is used not only by the Akan of Ghana but also the Gyaman people of neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. Adinkra symbols can be seen everywhere, painted onto buildings and vehicles, incorporated into shop signs, or printed onto cloth, traditionally by means of wooden stamps. And these days, they may also be found in the banners of Ghanaian Web sites.

Jean MacDonald of Well-Tempered Web Design in Portland, Oregon USA maintains an online repository of black and white adinkra symbols at www.adinkra.org. These are provided by Jean free of charge for personal use. If you inspect her collection, you will see that some are quite representational (combs, crossed swords, turtles) while others are more abstract.

Spokesmen's staffs

A spokesman’s staff

The head of a staff carried by the chief’s spokesman or ‘linguist’.

Another important court official is the man sometimes referred to as the ‘linguist’, though the job seems to be a combination of herald, orator and spokesman. The spokesman carries an ornate staff (akyeamaboma) with an elaborately carved head, somewhat like a sceptre, as his badge of office. The head of this staff is also usually carved to represent a traditional proverb.

Here, the proverb warns ‘If you try to jump over the shoulder of your elder, you will get caught up in his armpit!’ This advises people not to get too uppity and rebellious against their elders and betters.

Clan staffs

The head of a staff carried by the chief’s spokesman or ‘linguist’.

Clan staffs of the Fante people

Finally, some splendid examples of clan staffs carved and gilded by a carver and goldsmith from Agona Swedru in the Central Region of Ghana. A clan staff identifies the bearer as a member and representative of the leader of that clan e.g. for purposes of political negotiation. They also figure in public ceremonies of the clan, funerals etc.

Unlike in the preceding examples, it seems that the carved totem on the top of a clan staff does not represent a proverb, but rather the ‘fetish-being’ or totem of that clan, typically an animal or plant. Usually this being has an important mythological role in the history of the clan, for instance as having intervened to protect the founding ancestor. (This is similar to the Roman legend of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus.)

It is thought that clan staffs might be quite a recent innovation, and that they could be modelled on the sticks of authority given to Cape Coast chiefs in 1872 by the then British Governor, John Pope-Hennessy. There are no ancient examples of clan staffs extant, and among the Akan peoples, it is only the coastal Fante clans who use them.