The Akans


The Akans are one of the most culturally dominant ethnic groups in West Africa. Located in modern-day Ghana, formerly the British Gold Coast, the Akans are organized into matrilineal groups in which social and political power is wielded by the female head of household, and lineage reckoning is through the female side. TheAkans aremadeupofseveralsub-ethnic groupings, of which the Ashantis (Asantes) are the most prominent.In modern-day Ghana, the Akans have a pop-ulation of 8,562,748, representing more than 46 percent of the total national population of 18,412,247.

The other members of the Akan family are Ahanta, Akuapen, Akwanu, Akyem (Ahuakwa, Bosome, Kotoku), Buaho, Fante, Kwaku, Sefwi, and Wasa. Of these, the Asantes constitute 30.1 percent of the Akan population, mak-ing them the largest of the group. Geo-graphically, the Akans are spread over a large area of modern Ghana, covering areas as far as the Asante region, Bonon Aha-fo, central and eastern regions, and some remote parts of the Volta region.

The most commonly spoken language among the Akans is “Twi” with many dialects, depending on the location of the sub-group. These include Fante, Akuapem, Asante, and Akyem. Other dia-lects within the Twi language can also be found in the southwest area of Dankyira, Twifo, Wasa, and Ahanta.According to historians, the Ashanti kingdom (also known as Asante kingdom) was one of the last kingdoms to have emerged after the decline of the kingdom of Akuapem.

The kingdom of Akuapem was itself founded by refugees fleeing the Bono kingdom by moving southward toward modern-day Kumasi, where it was believed that the first Asante kingdom, known as Asante Manso, was established by the Queen mother, Nkansa.The first paramount king of this kingdom was Obiri Yeboa, who was the first son of King Ansa Sasraku I of Asamankese-Akwamu. Shortly after the installation of the new king, other refugees from Ayoko, led by Akyeampong Tenten, soon settled in the new kingdom.

With the new arrival, the title of the king was changed from Asa-mankese to Asantehene, and Ossei Tutu I, the grandson of Akyeampon’s sister, Nana Abena Gyapa, became the first Asante-hene. As Asante society is matrilineal, the Asantehene, the king, can be chosen only from among the male children of the king’s sister, the Queen mother, or from his aunt’s male children. The Queen mother is not the mother of the king; she could be the sister or the aunt, and she has tremendous power over the royal household.

The Akan people are ruled under an elaborate system of governance at the top of which is the king, the Asantehene.As the principal chief, the king acts under the authority of the ancestors and he is seen, by his subjects, to be the embodiment of their power and will. However, with the conquest of the kingdom by the British around the end of the 19th century, the authority and the influence of the king have greatly diminished.

The king now wields symbolic power, which is restricted to traditional and customary matters, while issues of jurisprudence are now taken over by the constituted authority of the modern state. In the day-to-day governance of his kingdom, the king is assisted by several lesser chiefs. Chieftaincy position is hereditary, and each of the selected chiefs has a symbolic right to a blackened tool, which is a sharp stick that has been hardened in fire.

The Queen mother also plays an important role in the administration of the royal court and of the kingdom. She maintains order within the royal court in addition to mobilizing popular support for the king’s authority and influence. Besides the Queen mother, the Council of Elders also plays a prominent role in running the kingdom and in advancing the authority of king over his subjects.

Under the direction of the king, the Council of Elders is set up as an advisory body to the royal court. The council consists primarily of elders, selected from different clans, who are considered to be knowledgeable of the clan’s history and rules guiding descent. Within the Council of Elders, there are three prominent fig-ures. The Krontihene is in charge of over-all administration of the kingdom.

The Okyeame is the noted linguist within the royal court, and through him, the king speaks to his subjects. The third position is the Gyasehene, who is solely responsible for the day-to-day administration of the royal palace. He is also responsible for maintaining an elaborate system of royal servitude, which in many cases may consist of several hundreds of royal serv-ants and court attendants selected from lower ranks of the Asante society.

Among the Akans, the extended family is the norm, which may be comprised of the spouse, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and other related siblings. The clan is the basis of social organization among the Akans, and members of the clan have claim to common ancestry and,in some instances, are united by one language. The oldest female member of the house-hold, often the maternal grandmother, oversees the running of the household, and through the recognition of her authority, order and respect for elders are maintained within the unit.

Matrilineal descent is the norm, and family properties are passed down through the female line. Rules of consanguinity, often determined by the female elders of the household, are used to decide on which member of the clan one can take as a bride. In most cases, the Akans practice exogamous marriage, which prohibits one from marrying one’s cousin. Marriage is seen as uniting two families or clans as opposed to uniting the bride and the groom; the maternal grandmother of the bride or the aunts have more say as to whom the bride takes for a husband.

Like most ethnic groups in West Africa, the Akans of Ghana believe in a very com-plex system of ancestor worship, and their worldview is still guided by superstition and oracular beliefs. The Akans believe in the existence of a universal God, the creator of all living things.

They also believe in the existence of other lesser gods or spirits through which they relate to their primary God, Odonmankoma or the Supreme God. The most important of these lesser gods are Bonebone,the creator; Omaomee, the granter of satisfac-tion; Omaowia, the giver of sunlight; Toturobonsu, the giver of rain; Onyan-Koropon; and Twereampton, the supporter.

These lesser gods or spirits are represented by different objects, the most common of which are blackened stools, and a tree (Nyaamedua), under which foods or eggs are left as sacrifice to the ancestors. Over-all, the Akans believe in their ancestors (Nsamanfo) as medium spirits between them and the Supreme God. They also believe that life continues after death and there is no clear separation, in their belief system, between heaven and earth; both are seen as a continuum.

In the Akan society, polygyny, a prac-tice whereby a man can marry more than one woman, is the norm. Polyandry (a practice where a woman can have more than one husband) is very rare. A man can only marry a woman outside his clan (exogamous marriage). Mate selection is usually done by the parents of the groom, often the mother or aunt of the groom. Once a match is made and both families have agreed on the suitability of the cou-ple for marriage, the groom’s family offers a“brideprice”tothefamilyofthebride.

The bride price can be in the form of articles of clothing, labor service in the bride’s father’s farm, and, more recently, money. The groom also presents to the father of the bride local drinks (Odo Nsa) to seal the relation. This process repre-sents the marriage contract; however, the bride price should be seen not as a pur-chase price of the bride, but as a symbolic offering that recognizes the emerging bond between the two families. Other types of marriage exist among the Akans, and one of these is the marriage of an unborn baby to a prospective suitor.

This is known as Asiwa (or betrothal), in which amanrequeststhehandsoftheunborn baby in marriage, assuming the unborn child is going to be a girl, which often can be predicted by the oracles. Once the request is accepted, the man then becomes the sole provider for the unborn baby’s mother, and after the baby is born, he con-tinues to support the baby and the mother until she reaches the age of puberty. Female twins are automatically reserved as wives to the king.

One of Akan’s great historical figures was a female warrior, Nana Yaa Asente-waa, who mobilized her people on March 28, 1900, against British occupa-tion of the Asante kingdom. Born of noble origin in 1840, Yaa Asentewaa was appointed Queen mother of Ejisu king-dom, one of several loose confederacies of the greater Asante kingdom. In 1896, Yaa Asantewaa’s brother, King Ejisu, was exiled to Seychelles along with the Asante king, Prempeh I, and other prominent members of his royal court.

The king had opposed the British occupation of his kingdom. With the absence of Prempeh I, the kingdom was in disarray, and agitation for his immediate release became the ral-lying point of revolt against the British occupying force. As a leader of the Asante confederacy, Yaa Asentewaa appointed her grandson to replace her brother as the new Ejisuhene. Together they became the rallying point of protest and opposition to the British governor-general of the Gold Coast, who earlier had humiliated King Prempeh I by seizing his Golden Stool before exiling him to Seychelles.

Now as a regent of the Ejisu-Juanben, Yaa Asante-waa organized and led a powerful force of 14,000 armed men and women in Kumasi in revolt against British occupation. This marked the beginning of the Asante’s rebel-lion against British rule throughout the Gold Coast. Several attacks were mounted against British soldiers by Yaa Asantewaa and her followers before she was finally capturedin1901andsent to exilein Seychelles, where she died on October 17, 1921.

Yaa Asantewaa’s courage, and her dedication to freeing the Asante’s nation from British occupation, in the face of one of the most brutal British military cam-paigns in colonial West Africa, made her a legend in the Akan society today.Today the Akans are part of the modern state of Ghana. While still maintaining their culture and tradition, which are often seen in their mode of dress, especially the Kente, the authority of the Asantehene, Ossei Tutu II, has been relegated solely to customary matters. After gaining indepen-dence in 1957, the country of Ghana adopted a British-type parliamentary democracy; but today, it has opted for an American-style presidential system after the country went through several violent military coups.

Pade Badru

Further Reading

Adu Boahen. Topics in West African History.London: Longmans, 1966.

Akyeampong, Emmanuel. “Christianity, Moder-nity and the Weight of Tradition in the Life of Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh I.” Africa 69, no. 2 (1999): 279. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. October 13, 2009.

Al-Bakri, Kitab al-masalik wa ’l mamalik. An Arabic Account of the Culture, Politics, and Geography of the Empire of Ghana. (Book of Routes and Realms, 1068).

Badru, P. “Family and Social Trends in Ancient West Africa.” In World Eras, Vol-ume 10: West African Kingdoms, 500–1590, by Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure. New York: A Manly, Inc. Book & Thompson-Gale Publisher, 2004.

Boahen, Adu, et al. Topics in West Africa His-tory. Harlow, UK: Longman Press, 1986.

Buah, F. K. A History of Ghana. London:MacMillan Education Ltd., 1980.

Busia, K. A. The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of Ashanti: A Study of the Influence of Contemporary Social Changes on Ashanti Political Institu-tions. London, New York, and Toronto: Oxford Press, 1951.

Clark, Gracia. “Negotiating Asante Family Survival in Kumasi, Ghana.” Africa 69, no. 1 (1999).

Danquah, J. B. The Akan Doctrine of God: A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Reli-gion. London: Cass, 1968.