The Ewe


The Ewe live in the region stretching from the southern side of the Volta River in Ghana to the Togo Mountains in Togo and are divided into four main groups: the Ewe “proper,” the Anlo Ewe, the Wtyi, and the Mina, which includes the Ga. The Ewe number over 2 million and are one of the main groups in Ghana. The Ewe speak several dialects of the Ewe language, and Anlo has become the literary language. Ewe belongs to the Gbe language cluster that also includes Fon; Gbe belongs to the Kwa family of the Niger-Congo phylum.

The Ewe originated in the border region between Benin and Nigeria and migrated to their current location in Ghana and Togo in the mid-1600s. Some Ewe remained in what is today known as Benin, where they form a very small minority. In 1784, the Ewe warred against the Danes, who estab-lished forts along the coastal region; but generally Ewe relations with European traders were fairly good, and the Ewe sold war captives tothe Europeans as slaves. Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and the Ewe turned to other eco-nomic activities such as producing and selling copra and palm oil. The Ewe were divided by British and German colonial enterprises; the British established the Gold Coast in 1874, and the Germans established Togoland colony in 1884.

During World War I, the Ewe were caught in the fighting between the European powers, and after the war, former German Togoland became a joint protectorate shared by Great Britain and France.The Ewe are organized around lineages headed by the senior male. Land was seen as a “gift” of the ancestors not to sell, though in recent years with the penetration of cash-crop economies, land sales do occur. Leaders of a village’s founding lineage traditionally hold political power, but a council of all lineage elders serves to help guide decision making. Colonial authorities ruled through pliant village lead-ers, and those who resisted colonial power were replaced. This upset the preexisting political structure, which allowed for the removal by their own people of leaders who were abusive of their power.

Ewe women play a major role in mar-kets as do many West African women. They are wholesalers as well as retailers, and they hold a near monopoly over trade in many coastal ports. They deal in a wide variety of items, many of which are produced by men such as a woven cloth called keta. Keta is similar to the better-known kente clothwovenbythe Asante (Akans). Keta is woven by men in narrow strips that are then sewn together. At first the cloth was white and blue, with blue being the only dye that they had access to; but, like kente cloth, other colors were available after trade with Europeans offered other sources, such as unraveling silk belts from Morocco imported and sold by Portuguese traders.

Voodoo is the traditional Ewe religion. The word “voodoo” is borrowed from the Fon word meaning “spirit.” Voodoo gives life to all objects (animism), and powerful spirits of nature are able to inhabit the body of a believer during rituals and give the person incredible physical abilities. TheEwe areabletoknowwhichspirit is possessing a person from the direction the eyes roll (back or to the sides), leaving only the whites visible. Today around 50 percent of Ewe are Christians or com-bine Christianity with traditional belief. TheEwearealsowellknown fortheir drumming. Ewe drumming accompanies dance, drama, poetry, and singing.

Drums accompany religious celebrations such as those that contact spirits associated with voodoo ceremonies. A special aspect of Ewedrummingisatypecalledhalo,which is a humorous exchange of insults between villages.The Ewe were able to maintain a sense of group identity despite being separated between two colonial states. In 1954, they founded the Togoland Congress to push to unify the Ewe people and land. Some Ewe in Togoland voted to join Ghana, which became independent in 1957.

However, the Ewe remain separated in two states that became independent in 1960, Ghana and Togo, and they represent about 40 percent of the population in Togo. In Togo, the political elite were mainly Ewe, and follow-ing independence, Ewe culture was used in an attempt to build a national culture. Ewe domination ended in 1967 when Gnassingbe Eyadema, a Kabre from the north, became president in a coup. The Ewe represent about 12 percent of Ghanaians and, although ethnic tensions have existed, such problems have not plagued Ghana as they have other African countries following independence.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Beckwith, Carol, and Angela Fisher. African Ceremonies. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2002.

Bouttiaux, Anne-Marie. “Afrique Occidental: Comment tisser les couleurs et le sens.” In Costumes et Textiles d’Afrique: Des Ber-be`res aux Zulu. Milan: 5 Continents Press, 2008.

Giles, Bridget, ed. Peoples of West Africa. New York: Diagram Group, Facts on File, 1997.

Salm, Steven J., and Toyin Falola. Culture and Customs of Ghana. Westport, CT: Green-wood Press, 2002.

Stokes, Jamie. “Ewe.” In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East. New York: Facts on File, 2009.