Opinions Tue, 1 Jun 2021

Letter from the North

`A great tree has been uprooted” in the Asante kingdom of Ghana!

This is how the Asante – incorrectly dubbed the “Ashanti” by colonialist and neo-colonialist writers – announced the death of their king. He was Otumfuor Opoku Ware II, and he has just joined his ancestors at the age of 79, after reigning for 29 years. He will be buried next week.

Okay, so some king has died in the North. So what? The event is noteworthy because Asante has a special place in the history of anti-colonial heroism in Africa. For example, in 1824, when Sir Charles MacCarthy, a Briton, attempted to extend British rule into Asante, his army was clobbered and his head cut off, to be attached to the Asante talking drums.

It was not until 50 years later that Sir Garnet Woleseley was able to lead a British force into the Asante capital, Kumase. Asante “rebelled” again, and in 1896 another British invasion occurred. It is one of the ironies of history – hardly ever taught to African students – that the founder of the Boy Scouts, Major RSS Baden- Powell, was in charge of the 1896 invasion.

Baden-Powell, who taught the Boy Scouts their so-called “code of honour”, exulted in looting the ancestral burial tombs of Asante, in the “Stool House” at Bantama, in Kumase. He carried an enormous collection of sacred gold ornaments back to Britain. After stealing its contents, Baden-Powell burned down the sacred Stool House. “A splendid blaze it made,” he wrote. So much for the brotherhood of humans, as preached by the Boy Scouts.

I saw some of the “loot” in London in 1982, at an exhibition called Asante Kingdom of Gold. It was quite disgusting to see so many indescribably beautiful works of art, from your own culture, kept in a British museum which does not even normally put it on show, but hides it in basements, alongside collections from the equally “primitive” Zulu or Matabele kingdoms.

The British government has returned the Stone of Scone, seized after a similar war with Scotland, but won’t hear of returning Africa’s cultural treasures to Africa. For a people like us who have been relegated to the ranks of the “uncivilised” for so long by Euro-American writers and anthropologists, this is certainly a double punishment. But what can we do?

I mentioned the Asante talking drums. What are these? You see, the Asante language is an example of the beauty at the heart of many African cultures. In Asante, what can be said with imagery is never said in plain tongue; what a proverb can make plain is never stated as fact. Every technique of poetry is employed: rhyme, assonance, apostrophe, simile and especially alliteration (yes: crafted by so-called “illiterates”).

The language, being “tonal”, lends itself to imitation by drums – one “male” (deep sound) and the other “female” (light in tone). These drums, called Fontomfrom or Atumpan, are used to recount whole tracts of ancestral history, which serves to “psyche up” the current king.

When the king of Asante is walking in public, the drums remind him that: “Obrempong nante bre, bre. (The mighty one steps softly, softly.)”

When the king is receiving important guests, the drums recite encomiums to him:

Osei, wo na woworo kawa firi wo mmatiri so!

Kurotwiamansa a wonnsuro hwasuo.

Wo na wodi sika atomprada

Wo ho ye hu, who ye hu, wo ho ye hu.

(Osei, you are the king who can take his ring off from the shoulder-end of his arm!/You are the leopard that fears not the dawn’s dew in the deep forest./You are the one who spends gold that is so pure that it does not to be refined./You are awesome, you are fearful, you are terrible to behold.)

I wish you could hear someone interpreting these drums, as they imitate the human voice, as it recites these words! The speech/drum rendition of poetry is a remarkable skill and one which will, hopefully, be taught in the best African schools one day, alongside (say) the skill of playing in a Western symphony orchestra.

Because the Asante did not have writing, the drum language is extremely important to them, for without accurate history, there can be no authentic succession to the legendary “Golden Stool” (throne) of the Asante.

The story of this Golden Stool is another formidable panel in the Asante cultural armoury. When king Osei Tutu founded the kingdom in the mid-17th century, it was made up of a group of disparate, semi-autonomous nation-states, given to much wrangling between themselves. So Osei Tutu asked his spiritual counsellor, a “super-sangoma” called Okomfo Anokye, what could be done to cement the nation permanently together.

Anokye asked the king to assemble the entire nation at one place. Then, having heightened their sense of credulity with an adequate display of drumming, dancing and magical skills, Anokye caused a golden stool to descend from the heavens, in a cloud of dark dust. The gathering cheered to the high heavens.

But Anokye wasn’t finished: he then asked the male and female heads of each clan to donate some of their pubic hair, as well as fingernails and toenails. He burnt the mixture into a powder, (mmotor) smeared some of it on the Golden Stool, and gave the rest to the gathered potentates to drink.

Anokye then proclaimed: “From now on, the souls of all of you and your descendants are inextricably bound up with the fate of this Golden Stool. If it is ever lost, so will your clans be.”

From that day to this, the Golden Stool of Asante has exerted a hold upon the Asante mind that is impossible to comprehend. For instance, in 1900, when Asante had been finally conquered by the British, and its king, Prempeh I, exiled to the Seychelles Islands, the British governor, Sir Frederick Hodgson, paid a triumphant visit to Kumase. At a durbar held to welcome him, he committed a serious gaffe by haughtily demanding: “Where is the Golden Stool? Why am I not sitting on it this moment?”

The Asante quietly left the durbar ground to prepare for war. For Hodgson had committed sacrilege: not even the Asante king is allowed to place his bottom on the Golden Stool! When the king is enstooled, he is held up to hover over it, but is not placed upon it. And for a white man to demand that his bottom should be placed on it was to the Asante, no less than a declaration of war.

So, led, of all people, by a woman warrior called Yaa Asantewaa – the bravest male warriors had been exiled with king Prempeh to the Seychelles – the Asante besieged the British party in their fort. At night, when the Asante war drums boomed around the fort, the British played 'Rule Britannia' on a phonograph as a retort or “reply”! It must have been one of the most bizarre episodes in the comic history of colonialism.

The Britons were spared their lives only because the Asante knew that king Prempeh would be a goner if they killed the British.

This fascinating history will be commemorated in the next few days, as Asante bids farewell to Otumfuo Opoku Ware II.

In case you wondered, I am not an Asante. In fact, my Akyem people were feared by the Asante, after they broke away from their common Akan hegemony! But that’s another story for another day.

Mail & Guardian Johannesburg 19 Mar 1999
Columnist: Cameron Duodo