WHO ARE THE AKAN? A Prologue to the much acclaimed book published March 2015: The Akan of Ghana.
By Kofi Ayim
The continent of Africa is located in the middle of the world, and the country of Ghana is the closest landmass to the actual center, where the equator and the Greenwich Meridian meet. The Akan people of Ghana occupy the southern half of the country, alongside various other ethnic groups. Besides the Ashanti Region, which is wholly Akan, they are found in the Eastern, Brong-Ahafo, Western, and Central regions, with a smaller enclave in the Volta Region. Through wars and migrations, some pockets of Akan ancestry have since been wholly transformed or absorbed by other indigenes of settled lands, such as at Ada in the Greater Accra Region and Dagomba in the northern Region. On the flip side, war captives of some other ethnic groups were resettled in the Ashanti Region. By its numerical strength, Twi has become the most widely spoken language in Ghana. There are three distinct written dialects of Twi—Akuapem, Asante, and Fante—of which Asante is the most popular and commonly used. The language of the Akan people is studied in some American universities such as Harvard, the University of Michigan, and Boston University, among others. It is believed that, before the Akan people settled in the forest belt and the coastal areas in the 13th century, the Guan were already settled. The Guan had migrated southerly from Gonja and its environs around 1200. However, the earliest recorded activities of probable humans were at the basin of the Oti River circa 10,000 B.C. And Stone Age pottery was recorded around Accra circa 4000 B.C., with iron at Tema around 100 B.C. The migrations, settlements, and resettlements of people, whether voluntary or otherwise, and whether on an individual or group basis, and their attendant integration and assimilation in an ethnic area, especially before and during the slavery era, make it extremely difficult to define a true or pure-blood Akan. This must be so because, during the era under discussion, some Akan families of substance acquired indentured servants. Even in some royal lines, the true-blood scenario cannot be said to be wholly true. This is predominant among the Akan even though similar structures may exist elsewhere in non-Akan regions. Many Akan elders who know the roots of their families never discuss them, and younger generations are often not exposed to the specifics of their ancestry. Some of these assimilated people by their own deeds occupy respectable positions within a given family or royalty. The influence of the Akan people, especially the earlier Akwamu, on their minority neighbors is well documented. The Ga people of earlier times (like the Jews in ancient Egypt) had priests as their leaders, rather than kings, while the Akan (like the Jews in ancient Palestine) had kings ruling them. The royal setups in Ga are probably the result of their early overlords, the Akwamu, an Akan people. But the influence is not a one-sided affair. Some Ga expressions such as Yomo be Ga (literally “there is no old woman in Ga land”), a dark black concoction used to dye out gray hair (so as to stay younger), and Charlie Wote (“Charlie, let’s go”), a type of rubber sandals, have filtered into the spoken language of the Akan. Further, some staple diets of the non-Akan such as kenkey, banku, and tuo zaafi are common among the Akan people. Likewise, the heavy fugu costume from northern Ghana is gaining much currency in every facet of culture in Ghana. So is the three-piece danchiki (pronounced danciki)–top shirt, wando pants with a big outer layer, or agwada–popular not only for its ease of wear, but its ability to hide the big belly of many a man. It must be remembered that the dachiki costume is not native to Ghana, but to the Hausa from Nigeria. Influences both internal and external have diluted cultural awareness not only of the Akan people, but of almost all ethnic groups exposed to one another. On a personal experience, one time at a service of a predominantly Ghanaian church congregation in New Jersey, I asked for an offertory envelope.
When I saw that the middle-aged woman handing out the envelopes was offering it to me with her left hand, I quickly and on impulse withdrew my own outstretched right hand. She got the message and changed hands. After the service, in a friendly manner, she inquired of me why I still held onto this old and archaic culture here in the U.S. In a similarly friendly way, I had her read from the Bible Genesis 48, verses 17 to 22, where use of the right hand versus left is shown to matter greatly. She was shocked. I also told her that there is no chapter and verse in the Bible that teaches or shows wedding rings being slipped on fingers, and that this practice has more to do with culture—European culture—than with religion. She tells me she is still trying to differentiate which cultural practices, both Akan and European, have biblical connotations or underpinnings. For all the similarities in the culture, custom, and tradition of the Akan, especially the Twi-speaking people, there are inherent differences in some applications and language patterns, probably influenced by non-Akan neighbors. For example, the Asante and Akyem call orange ankaa, while others such as the Akuapem call it akutu. Ankaa is lemon in the Twi dialect of Akuapem, while akutuo in Asante or akutu kankan (foul, smelly) in Akyem refer to a grapefruit used for cleaning. The Akan are, however, distinguished from other ethnic groups through other indices such as traditional music, drumming, and dancing. The adowa, kete, and fontomfrom drumming and dancing are found mainly among the Twispeaking Akan. This study, when language arises, offers examples of words and syntax from both Asante and Akuapem Twi. However, Appendix 2 contains purely Asante Twi and is the only part in this work that employs the unique alphabetical characters of the Twi language.
It must be borne in mind that, in a country such as Ghana, unity can be cultivated from the uniqueness of cultural diversity when it is suitably, philosophically harnessed. One may be an Akan per se in contemporary Ghana, but his or her ancient blood could be from a country other than Ghana. We should remember that, during institutionalized slavery, the Portuguese and other European interests brought into the then Gold Coast slaves from other West African countries. Some of these slaves eventually ended up in the interior as load carriers, especially when traders from the interior on reaching the coast would find out that their own load carriers were not enough for the merchandise bought to be carried back. (No coastal native would willingly be a load carrier into the forest belt!) It is in the forest belt that present-day Akan people reestablished and recreated themselves after centuries of migrations.
The author, Kofi Ayim is the editor of Amandla. The book is available @ amazon.com, where excerpts can be read. Watch an interview on youtube.