Ammasu – an anthropological narrative
by Prudence Woodford-Berger
He came one Monday morning with her wrapped in a cloth. Nana Kofi Kyeremen, the royal drum maker, was making a pair of Atumpan drums for Bengt and had asked if I wanted something too. I had heard he made wonderful statuettes and carved figures and asked if he would make me a figure of a woman. When he came, he explained why he carved her as he had: she was a young woman, just past her bara first menstruation rites, which was signified by the fact that she was wearing beautiful waist beads and a tam loincloth. She has a long neck and a round head and hoop rings in her earlobes (signs of female beauty), and is standing with her feet akimbo and one hand on her hip, with the other holding up her left breast. The drum maker said that this showed that she realized her importance as part of a matrilineage and was proud of this role as progenitrix and nurturer. That she stood with her feet firmly planted on the ground showed her key role as farmer and producer of food and wealth, as well as her closeness to Asase Yaa, the goddess, spirit and keeper of the earth and all it yields.
Nana Kofi Kyeremen, the royal drum maker
She was given to me on a Monday, so I named her Adwoa. Tweneboa (lit. the ‘twene’ tree) designates the beautiful and hard wood she was carved from.
In the mid-1970s, we went to Ghana on a journey of discovery and learning that was both professional and personal. The objects of our studies made up what in many ways were two important, parallel strands of people’s existence: on the one hand music and movement, and on the other hand, what people – particularly women and girls – thought of their work, families and community, and what strategies they had for managing their lives and relationships.
The fact that we chose Ghana had mostly to do with personal historical reasons and with what we’d concluded from literature and other people. Nketia with groundbreaking work on music in Ghana and other parts of West Africa was a living legend, as were many of the anthropologists and other writers who’d written about women and Akan matrilineal kinship systems in Ghana. Most of the few relevant works on women and gender equality at that time, including the feminist ones, tended to view women’s responsibilities in “the family” and/or in production as decisive for our subordinate social status. We wanted to see for ourselves how theories actually incorporated – or not – the actual experiences and perceptions of real people.
We came to the community of Ammasu by way of Kumasi and then Dormaa-Ahenkro, the capital of Dormaa District and traditional State, in Western Brong-Ahafu. In Dormaa-Ahenkro, we encountered the regionally renowned Akapoma band and their invitation to show us their home community, Ammasu. Dormaa has a fascinating history, which the storytellers and spokepersons related with pride because they perceived it to witness their distinct heritage of integrity, strength and resistance to the overlordship of other groups, notably the Ashantis. Akapoma and her compelling musics are an important part of that history.
We were keenly aware of the risks of being perceived as part of exploitative, neo-colonialist pursuits. The fact that the people we met were as curious about us and our family as we were about them meant a kind of reciprocity in a social relationship that was pretty much equally shared.
Ammasu was – and still is – a farming community. Historically, after a long process of migration from near Akosombo in the Eastern region to the forest areas of Dorma, people pan-mined gold, farmed, hunted, gathered and traded to earn their livelihoods. In modern times, community inhabitants, especially women, still obtain their livelihood largely by horticultural farming, by related activities such as the small-scale distribution of self-produced foodstuffs through local trade, and by gathering for their own use or for sale non-cultivated food and other forest products. People also grow cocoa for cash, a major factor in the capitalization of the local economy and the national export economy. A minority of people live from formal employment or permanent wage labour such as in lower civil service positions. Land is owned and administrated by kinship groups, and both women and men are entitled to usufruct rights to land through their matrilineage. This is important for women because it means that they do not necessarily have to be married to have access to farming land.
Upon marriage, women usually also are given land to work from their husbands, primarily in order to grow crops to feed him, their children and themselves from. However, women are expected to be and usually are largely self-supporting. In fact, the role of breadwinner, producer and family provider is central to women’s identities. The cultivating, gathering, processing, custodial and distributional activities of women make up the basis of most economic processes in Ammasu. This was an important fact because it challenged the Western notion at that time (and maybe even nowadays?) as previously referred to of a more or less strict distinction between ‘public’ (or political) and ‘private’ spheres of being, action, influence and decision-making. In Ammasu there were no sharp divisions between the public and the private, rather they merged and overlapped both inside of family structures and houses, as well as in arenas outside of these such as streets, porches and marketplaces. Women as well as men occupied and moved within both spheres, and could translate actions and resources from the one to the other.
Many everyday work tasks in Ammasu are said to be ‘female’ ones or ‘male ones’, but in reality nearly all can be performed by either sex. Pre-adolescent children are identified and summoned by the term ‘akola’ which is a non-gendered form meaning “small one”. Both girls and boys perform household chores including cleaning and tidying up and cooking food. Girls more than boys look after smaller children and babies, but boys are also seen carrying out this function and even carrying babies wrapped on their backs.
Children of Ammasu
Men also do farming, although not to the same degree as farming women, as well as among other things, hunting, fishing, palm-wine tapping, lorry driving, vehicle repair, carpentry, storekeeping, masonry and revenue-collecting. Men are also holders of traditional and religious, titled offices to a much greater degree than women. Many such offices are related historically to a military organization and to a socially stratified system that divided people and families traditionally, according to ancestry, into royals, commoners, and servants, pawns and slaves including captives of war.
The ruling groups were Akan matrilineages reputedly mainly from the Aduana (lit. Dog) clan. As the group from Akosombo moved northwest, they incorporated other groups they encountered along the way. In the Ammasu we met and lived in, it was the Ankobea matrilineage branch who was in power since it was that branch the Chief was from. However, the historical process of incorporation and getting-along through power-sharing and not only by brute force and conquest, meant that some royal and other important positions of the court were occupied by other Akan lineages, primarily Brong lineage branches of Drobo and Gyease. These peoples already occupied in many cases the lands that the Akosombo group settled on.
Ahenkaan performing rites
The powerful ‘little god’ Kwesi Gyebum and his shrine that is renowned throughout the region even in modern medical circles, due to the ability to heal broken bones well, was actually appropriated from Drobo, and the incumbent in the important position of Okyeame (royal linguist or spokesperson) during the time of our first visit was Kofi Boanu, a magnificent oratorian and member of the Akapoma music band.
Kofi Boanu dancing
The Akan traditional economic and political systems contain contradictions and a pragmatic dimension that allows some room for flexibility and social mobility despite their seeming rigidity. No condition seems to have been perceived of as permanent, and the history of Ammasu like other Akan communities attests to upward mobility and personal aggrandizement being potentially within the reach of every man and woman, including those of pawn, servant or slave descent. This can be accomplished by – above all – hard work, but also by good behaviour, ambition, marriage, endowments, sponsorship and patronage and/or sheer good luck. Also, Christian, Muslim and traditional animist religious orientations can be and often are found within the same kinship and family groupings.
A feature of the Akan traditional state organizational system is its institutionalized, representational political decision-making, whereby different constituencies are represented through a structure of councils from state to local village and kinship levels. Women are regarded as an important constituency, and many male office-holders have female counterparts at the various levels. This, matrilineal kinship and the primacy of the unit of a mother and her children notwithstanding, Akan female personhood is bolstered nonetheless by the conviction – held by both women and men – that rights to authority belong primarily to men, and that women should defer to men and are subordinate to their authority.
The chiefs council
Allegiances to matrilineal kin, especially to siblings and rather often at the expense of other kinds of relations including marital ones, inspired many an interview to understand loyalties, affection and solidarity as well as rivalry and competition, among women, among men and between women and men as kin, as spouses and as parents and children in relation to one another. Brothers – especially elder brother – represent a major form of male authority for both women and men. It is the mothers’ brother – not her husband – who exercises authority over younger brothers, sisters, and sisters’ children when it comes to upbringing and material resources, and who are to inherit him.
It became clear after some months that the flexibility or fluidity that characterized the social system, and that pointed up the contradictions embedded in the system, was an important factor in, for example, women’s life strategies. Despite the matrilineal system and the apparent potential for women
Many of the different kinds of music the Akapoma band played and sang relate to the history of the Dormaa people – a history of defiance, resistance and resolve, while at the same time the music evolved through the years by incorporating new elements and references. As we gradually learned, royals and their courtiers expressed their relative positions of wealth, power and privilege through music and by membership in the band as well as by other means.
Dancing at a Funeral
This is a history of the Akapoma music and group as related by the Chief and some of his elders, and translated by J. Yaw Donkor:
“We have had Akapoma since the time that Nana Kwasi Akwaboa was chief. At that time the white men had come to take us as slaves. We Brong and Ashantis were one nation. Yaa Asantewaa, a famous woman royal and fighter, stood up and said that we would never go along with letting them take us as slaves.
There was a lot of fighting between the white men and the Ashantis. That war was about in 1901. The white men defeated us and took some of our brothers and sisters to their homes. They also forced the King (Ashantehene) and all the chiefs to swear that they would not fight them again. When all the chiefs were going to swear this oath, we Dormaa people had our own leader. She was a women called Akosua Nsoah. She went with some of the chiefs – the Ankobeahene, the Akwamuhene, the Akontanimhene and the Mansenhene – (to Kumasi) to swear the oath the British were forcing on us. Before they left to go to swear the oath, the Dormaa chiefs told their people to form a group and some (special) drums to play, because maybe they would be killed or taken hostage and not be able to return to their homes.
So the group was formed and played special music, and the group and the music was called ‘Akapoma’. The chiefs admonished the group and all the people to remain united and to love and devote themselves to one another, and to play the drums for Akapoma. ‘Akapoma’ means to unite, to gather together (so that we can be strong and meet any adversity). ‘ Ye ye akapomamu ‘ = we (will) gather ourselves together and show our strength as one people.”
Ammasu Akapoma Group
I asked Yaw Donkor why he was not a member of the Akapoma group. His answer was that the members of the group do not encourage the younger men to join (“They don’t like small boys.”) When I asked why, his reply was that the group thought that young people are too rough and don’t take things seriously. Also, the older men seemed to resent the lack of interest that the young people have in more traditional music. They thought that the young people prefer high life (adjeitie ) and other kinds of contemporary music. Yaw said that he would first learn to play the drums properly then try to join the group, as he thought that he would be good too and of use to the group as its secretary. At that time the band had no secretary.
Yaw Donkor with small sister
I asked why he couldn’t join first and then learn to play. His reply implied that first he would have to show them that he was serious and that he knew what he was doing.
Apparently, the recruitment base for Akapoma is rather narrow, mainly from among the different branches of the royal lineage and age is also a factor. Not only the male Akapoma-players and singers were mature men, also the median age of the members in the female section (kinswomen and wives of the men) was high. Economics also played a part. Yaw and some of the other younger men said that they have little time for anything other than for their farming and other work where they could earn money. Akapoma remuneration was not enough to compensate them for the time and energy they would have to put into working with the band. The Akapoma members had access to alternate means of income through fee-collecting, traditional court cases etc. Although most of them were also farmers, they could more easily free up time to play at funerals and other events, as they could mobilize other labour to work their farms (wives, children, tenants, younger siblings, other dependents) so that they themselves could be absent even during key times of the agricultural season.
Marriage and children
Children are important in many ways in Ammasu, and the fact that our two children were with us there meant that there was never a shortage of topics for conversation.
For families, children are of course indispensable for the vigor, continuation and expansion of the matrilineal lineage and its collective wealth and influence. For individual women and men children – especially if they are robust and survive infancy, do well in school and in their lives after they reach their maturity – are proof of procreative abilities, of love, and are evidence that their parents are leading morally acceptable lives. It is recognized that not everyone will have children due to health or perhaps other reasons, but as a status marker having a child usually means automatic acceptance as an adult person, and a degree of selfdetermination and authority that people without children do not have. Having a child means having someone to take care of you in your old age, and someone “to bury you” properly when you die.
People expressed equal preference for daughters and for sons, preferably equal number of each! In a practical sense, children are a kind of social insurance for elderly parents and other kinspeople, and from the time they are small, children are invaluable as contributors to household well-being and upkeep. Boys as well as girls together with old people and women are responsible for most household chores. Children and women fetch firewood and prepare food. Children go with their mothers to farm, first carried on their mothers’ backs, later from the time they can walk a fair distance on their own and can help out with weeding or other farming chores. Children fetch water, sweep the yard and carry garbage out to the pit, look after smaller children and actively take part in the upbringing of children younger than themselves. It is not common to hear older children quote proverbs to younger ones. Children’s play and songs often have a didactic purpose. “To have children” was the most common reason women and men gave for entering into marriage, more common even than “for love”. To have help in earning a livelihood was also expressed, but less often than to have children.
In Ammasu, there was no such thing as an “illegitimate child” or a child “born out of wedlock”, since children inherit their social belonging and identity through their mothers whether married or not, and they also have a right to access to the property and other resources of their matrilineage. It is the mother’s lineage who are charged with the more authoritative responsibilities of child-raising. Fathers are also extremely important to their children and for their well-being, especially the Akan say, for their spiritual well-being. According to them, children receive their physical beings – flesh, blood and bones – and their social heritage and basic sustenance from their mothers. From their fathers they get their spiritual essence, access to added material resources, to education and to a set of relatives who can be advocates and even allies, since they do not have primary responsibility for children’s upbringing.
Marriage is important in Ammasu. It seemed as though a person is not considered fully entitled to adult status until she or he has been married at least once. Marriage is also perceived in quite a pragmatic way by men as well as women. An elderly woman, Efua Donkor, put it this way: “It is better to be married than to be unmarried for a women, because otherwise you will have too many expenses…and have to buy all your farming tools and other things for yourself. But if you can’t marry a good husband, and you can take care of yourself, there is no need.” A number of different kinds of conjugal associations are recognized in Ammasu, as in other Akan communities. A few of the older women I spoke with said they had been married asiwa , i.e. betrothal as a child. The most prestigious and legally-binding form of marriage in the traditional system is aseda , and entails a long process of extensive gift-giving and contact between the families of the wife-to-be and husband-to-be. According to most of the women I spoke too, it is no longer very common for the aseda process to actually be completed. Some of these marriages will be called aseda anyway, while others will be considered mpena , a marriage in which no rites at all are performed, but in which the woman is still usually acknowledged as having a wifely status with obligations – such as cooking meals for the husband, as well as some marital rights. Marital co-residence occurs only infrequently in Ammasu, and is indeed a characteristic of most Akan communities, particularly in rural areas, regardless of the kind of conjugal arrangement a couple has. Married women and men continue to live in houses that belong to their matrilineal kinfolk.
Married women go to visit (ko hyia) or to sleep (ko da) with and do housekeeping chores for their husbands, but they will seldom cook, eat or bathe there, or keep any of their personal belongings in their husbands’ houses unless they co-reside with them on a permanent basis. Most people, both women and men, seemed surprised when I asked about this. Women generally meant that they felt more comfortable having a place and things of their own, sharing childcare, farming and household chores with other women who were their matrikin. Moreover, it was practical because they didn’t have to sleep with and attend to their husbands constantly, but could free up some time for themselves and for independent economic activities like trading. Men said it was a practical arrangement, especially if they had more than one wife or girlfriend.
A good husband should contribute to the support of his wife or wives, and children, and as a father he should provide for the education of his children. A good husband should consult his wife or wives, and ask their opinion about things that concern them all. Most people have histories of several marriages and divorces, and it was much more common than not that women divorced their husbands as they grew old, even if they remained friends. This is because divorce meant, they said, that they were no longer responsible for cooking for them or had to ask their approval or permission to do certain things such as traveling to visit relatives and friends or on business, or had to put up with various troubles and worries, ‘kunu asem’ (husband worries). Efua Donkor told me: “If you are a girl or unmarried young woman, it is your father, your maternal uncle and your older brothers who decide over you. When you are married, your husband decides over you. But if you are divorced or a widow and use your head, you can be independent and make your own decisions. Since you have been married, you are not dependent on getting permission from your father, uncle or brothers. And since you no longer have a husband, obviously you are not dependent on getting permission from him.”
One of the most imposing and colourful persons we met in Ammasu was Kwabena Ahenkaan. He was and apparently still is one of the more central people in the royal lineage Ankobea, as well as in the Akapoma music group. Ahenkaan was said to be a powerful man, known and respected for his social standing and close relationship with the current chief, his custodianship of the Kwasi Gyebum deity and healing shrine, his knowledge about both historical and current affairs of Ammasu and its leadership, his humour and quick wit, his good looks, his powerful singing voice and his appeal to women. It seemed that Ahenkaan was known to nearly everyone, and even those who appeared to be his competitors and rivals expressed admiration for his skills and amicability.
Ahenkaan’s father was a renowned chief and ritual specialist Nana Kwabena Twim, a first-born, elder brother to the current chief. As the child of an important chief (oheneba) and himself the first-born male child of his mother Afua Biaa, Ahenkaan also inherited certain privileges. He lived primarily in the Palace quarters and by “staying close” to his father came to learn a lot about the history of Ammasu and Dormaa District. He was an important member of the Chief’s advisory council, and was frequently consulted even on personal matters by many people.
It was not easy to pin Ahenkaan down in one place long enough to interview him. He was a very busy man and at that time had a reputation to keep up in terms of liaising with his wives and other women, enjoying drinks and just generally keeping in touch with people and making sure he was informed about the affairs of the townspeople. Some years ago, Ahenkaan had a health scare and since then is said to have cut down on drinking and smoking. When explaining his marital arrangements, Ahenkaan changed the number of wives he had several times, then finally settled on “approximately four” (twi, beye nnan). He was also unclear or rather purposely oblique about the number of children he had fathered, which was said to be 16.
Like most other Ammasu residents, Ahenkaan was a cocoa and food farmer. In addition, he earned some income by performing some palace functions, receiving a small share of the rents for land and property the ruling Ankobea lineage could claim, and from fees he was paid for divination and healing rites as keeper of the Kwesi Gyebum shrine. Despite this, he was not a wealthy man, and there were many people who depended on contributions from him for their support. Ahenkaan explained that he inherited custodianship of the Kwesi Gyebum from his father: although he had several older brothers, he was the male child that was closest to father and who even as a boy had shown remarkable aptitude and a gift for divination and healing.